The Bliss of Solitude
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The Bliss of Solitude

Where the river flows into Blenheim Park from the Water Meadows by Rod Craig – www.rodcraig.com

One of the problems of being a full-time novelist – which I have been for the past twenty years and more – is this: when I’m deeply immersed in my storyline, my characters and their problems, I can’t read fiction by anybody else. Of course, I have to read for research: history books, biographies, diaries, newspapers, letters, memoirs, bus tickets: you name it. The devil always lies in getting authentic detail spot on.

But other writer’s fictional voices intrude into my imaginary world. They push what I’m plotting on to the sidelines and interfere. They damage the essence of the characters I’m fleshing out on my immediate page. Months often go by when I haven’t read any of the latest blockbusters – not because I don’t want to, but because I need to put up the shutters in my mind to allow my own garden to nourish the most original, page-turning seeds.

BUT: when Covid-19 first shattered our lives in March 2020 I became so worried about the people I loved in the world around me that I was completely unable to write a single word.

So for six weeks, in a weird kind of silent isolation, I read other authors. Rose Tremain, L.P. Hartley, Elizabeth Taylor, Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, Richard Ford, J.D.Salinger, Edna O’Brian, Josephine Tey, Anne Tyler, Jean Rhys, Kazuo Ishiguro, Sebastian Faulks, Ruth Rendall, Harper Lee, John le Carré: the list goes on. My study shelves shivered as I shook the dust off volumes I’d hardly ever opened before.

I also read poetry. I do that almost every day, virus or no virus: William Butler Yeats, T.S.Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats – and William Wordsworth, whose glorious poem in praise of daffodils describes what every artist must have in order to do anything creative: that “inward eye which is the bliss of solitude”. I love living alone, the freedom it brings, allowing me to write morning, noon and night if I need to. And although I dislike large crowds, I adore singing hymns within a congregation, going to the theatre, sitting on a bus, browsing in Blackwell’s wonderful Oxford bookshop, people-watching over coffee in a café, working in the Bodleian.

After six solid weeks of reading, walking, not talking to anyone except my cat and watching the BBC’s dire television news every afternoon at 4.30, I’d had enough. I broke my own silence. It was back to work with a vengeance, making up for what I thought was “lost time”.

In fact, it was anything but. The “break” had done me a power of good. Energy had been restored. I’d been forced to take a holiday in ways I could never have predicted. Creative minds need to take decent breathers. I remember once telling a wealthy friend that I’d got horribly stuck on my current novel. “Go to Venice,” he advised. “Sit in a gondola and eat Gelati Motta. It’s the best remedy I know.” Little did he know that most struggling novelists live mainly on baked beans and can rarely afford to go anywhere but the nearest corner shop – and sometimes not even that.

Wordsworth’s “bliss of solitude” listens to the inner voice of creativity. It tells the composer which notes to choose for each instrument. It guides musicians as they practise their demanding craft; singers as they learn to breathe correctly and reach that top or bottom note; dancers as they keep their bodies trained and mobile, sensitive to every nuanced sound.

And artists as they sharpen their pencils, prime their canvas and prop it on the easel, select their colours, examine their faces, figures or landscapes, and finally start to dip their brushes in paint. I was reminded of both my theme of solitude and of the great art of the watercolourist when I opened Rod Craig’s recent catalogue. There are photos of him – all alone, of course – standing by his easel in a field, checking his work in his studio, sitting on craggy rocks by the sea: looking, learning, recording everything he sees in paint.

There is something essentially English about Rod Craig’s brilliantly fluid and spontaneous world: Summertime in England with its heavy clouds and deep green fields; Full Force Gale as the ocean meets the sky. And one of my particular favourites, which we illustrate here: Where the river flows into Blenheim Park from the Water Meadows. Wordsworth describes his daffodils in words. Rod would reveal them in paint that seems to move before our eyes. Both celebrate the wonders of the natural world.

These wonders have meant more to us this past year than ever before. In spite of the vicious spread of the pandemic, the sky above us remains ever-changing and glorious. The dawn chorus still wakes us in the spring. The colours of the trees in autumn are still their stunning orange-gold.

And although we may have been separated from the people we love, our feelings for them, however physically distant they are, remain as powerful as ever. When my grandson turned eighteen, I was forbidden to be with him to celebrate. Instead, my heart bursting with joyful memories, I wrote this poem:

For My Grandson
22 December 2020

Now you are eighteen and I am eighty-one
We’d make the perfect couple could we frolic in the sun
But fields lie between us. The floods swell up. The rain
Descends upon its puddles while pandemic spells its pain.

Now you are eighteen and I am eighty-one
Those numbers are but nothing in the many still to come …
Congratulations darling boy. Your manhood, beckoning
May health and joy attend it as my birthday wishes sing

To you and all around you in happy bubbles, blown
Across our Cotswold fields where the seeds of spring are sown.
Now you are eighteen and I am eighty-one
We shall make the perfect couple in twenty twenty one.