The reality of the smallholder’s life rarely delivers the rustic simplicity of the dream. There’s no such thing as a lie-in, a day off or a sick day. The commitment you make to your animals’ welfare is all-encompassing: in sickness and in health, come rain or drought and whilst wading through the deepest mud. (The Sussex dialect has more than thirty words to describe mud, including slob, slab and slub. I’ve been stuck in most of them.)
Whilst developing an efficient routine in the morning will help clear the rest of your working day, once you’ve taught your animals to expect you by a certain time, they are vocally intolerant of slacking. Cows are particularly good clock watchers and value punctuality above all else, punishing you with a noise that accelerates from idle concern to anguished dismay in moments. And don’t even think about teaching a pig to be patient.
And yet, with twenty-five muddy winters behind me, I wouldn’t choose to live any other way. It is grounding in the most literal sense of the word. Immersing yourself in every type of weather before the rest of the world has risen is, above all, an exercise in patience and discipline, both of which are helpful tools in a writer’s armoury.
When I’m working on a novel, the routine of those manual jobs helps immeasurably. I never stare at a blank sheet of paper and work myself into a lather of mind-numbing writer’s block. Instead, I’ll put my wellies on and do something useful. My creative brain is actually happiest when left to its own devices, particularly while my non-creative brain keeps my hands busy. Chain-sawing wood is good, so is mucking out the cow pens. There’s usually a moment when I can fling my boots off and sit down to write with renewed vigour but if that doesn’t quite happen as hoped, then at least I have a bigger wood pile or happier cows to show for it.
Living with animals is also an exercise in noticing. While time racing by can be panic-inducing in most circumstances, there’s something reassuring about the steady plod of time in the countryside. Noticing the first green shoots of a bluebell, as it makes its improbable appearance in January, heralds the spring and makes the summer feel possible again.
Writing can be lonely, but the sounds of the countryside provide constant companionship. I usually have the pleasure of a nightingale’s song in the spring. When it stops, it feels like a loss until you remember it’s a moment of triumph not tragedy. It means the song has been successful and he’s found his mate. It’s an annual reminder that telling a story into a void might just be okay.
My life is fuller now than ever before, but carving out time to write has become easier. It used to feel like a hard-to-justify pleasure; now I accept it as a compulsion that must be answered. The need to write nags me as impatiently as the cows when they want their hay on a winter’s morning.
Swan Song was written before Covid, but the themes of mental health and the healing power of nature seem even more pertinent than before. The story was born out of a deep worry for the increasing mental health problems seen in young people. According to an NHS survey, rates of mental health disorders in young people have increased. In 2020, one in six (16%) people aged 5 - 16 were identified as having a probable mental health disorder, an increase from one in nine (10.8%) in 2017. Suicide rates for young men and women have greatly increased. A new study shows that suicides among teenage girls and young women have doubled in the last seven years. Certainly, lockdown during Covid has had a huge effect on young people’s mental health too, exacerbated by uncertainty and isolation... to read more click HERE