Bientôt en ligne.Top
Some ancient kind of wisdom whispers always, ‘Stay where you are. What is good and necessary for you will be brought or you will be led to it. Wait. Have patience. What has been written down for you will happen when the time comes,' 
Leaving their homeland to write is a risk for some authors. Place can be key to creativity; the old desk bought at the Barras when they were a student, the endless cups of tea brewed in soft Scottish water, the distant traffic sounds and train whistles only audible when the wind blows northwards. It's a great honour to retreat to the luxury of a countryside villa, but what if the writing mojo remains at home, fixed in the fabric of the author's home town?
My city is Glasgow. With a population of around six hundred thousand it's the largest in Scotland, though not the capital, that honour belongs to Edinburgh where I grew up. Scotland is a diverse country; urban and rural, island and mainland, highland and lowland. Its geography, accents, politics and history are central to my writing. Scots are not generally as multi-lingual as the citizens of Flanders, but we do have various languages and dialects within our bounds. Indeed accents alter every forty miles or so making it possible for a native of Edinburgh to have difficulty understanding their Glaswegian counterpart, and vice versa.
Given this it may be unsurprising that conflict also exists. Sometimes its playful - Glaswegians accuse their rivals of being ‘all fur coat and nae knickers' while Edinburgians dub Weegies, soap dodgers. But hostilities can be deadly earnest. The longstanding sectarian divide between some Catholics and Protestants continues to fuel violence between supporters of Glasgow's two biggest football clubs, Rangers and Celtic. Youth gangs (young teams), some over a hundred years old, carve the city into territories (sometimes literally, the knife - chib - is the weapon of choice). Christened ‘the dear green place', because of its large amount of parkland, Glasgow still has one of the highest murder rates in Europe. These killings aren't the kinds that traditionally grace literature. They're drunken and unnecessary, the product of misguided efforts to gain peer approval or tragic accidents; the result of fallings out between friends.
Violence, poverty and decay are all a part of the environment I live in and draw inspiration from. But Glasgow is also a highly cultured place, a city that boasts two ancient universities, a world-famous art school and a host of further education colleges. It's home to a wealth of writers, visual artists and musicians, a friendly city with great shops, galleries and museums. The delight I feel in Scotland's energy, landscapes, humour and people is also embedded within my fiction. I live there because it is home, and home, with all its faults and pleasures, is an inspiration.
So what of Flanders? Is this a quiet place, free from conflict, where the muse dies?
Villa Hellebosch in Vollezele, where I was granted a four week residency, is a charming mansion in the Flemish countryside. Built from the red brick typical of the region, it's topped by an untypical thatched roof which gives the place a fairytale feel. The enchanted atmosphere of the house is echoed in the ancient woods that front the property. Three times the height of the house, the trees form a fluttering green canopy over earth littered with shed leaves. The dappled light means that the woods seem to be constantly changing. Sculptures hide beneath the trees' shade, waiting like a reward for the explorer.
The noises at Villa Hellebosch are of a different variety than the urban street sounds that invade my Glasgow study, but they're equally loud.
B Woof. B
U Whhooo. Whoo, Whhwhooo, Whhooo. Whoo, Whhwhooo, U
Z Chirp- Chirp- Chirp- Chirp- Chirp- Chirp- Chirp- Chirp- Chirp- Z
Z Woof, woof, woof, WOOF! Z
Z tweeewit, tweeewit, tweeewit, tweeewit, tweeewit, Z
Z da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da Z
Z squark squark squark squark squark squark squark squark Z
Z whooowit whooowit whooowit whooowit whooowit whooowit Z
Z WOOF! Z
There are no boom boxes, car stereos or buskers at Hellebosch, but this is a musical place.
VIBRATO PERCUSSION MELODY CRESCENDO
Bees Rooks Blackbirds Thunder
Hornets Pigeons Thrushes Wind in the treetops
Flies Peacocks Chaffinches Dogs Barking
Dogs Barking Small birds
Gravel underfoot Church clock chimes
And though there's human concord, violence also exists at Vollezele. The dogs catch and eat rabbits, baby birds are thrown from their nests by jackdaws, and days of sunshine are followed by thunder storms that set the trees roaring. Once, during my stay, a mature tree was hit by lightning and sent crashing to the ground.
I didn't arrive at Vollezele without preconceptions. As ever I'd tried to inform myself about my destination before I left home, so I already knew Flanders was the birthplace of Audrey Hepburn, Jacques Brel, James Ensor, Hieronymus Bosch and other great creative artists. I'd learned Zola, Nabokov, Camus, Rilke and Baudelaire had all written about the country, that it had even been mentioned by Dante and Chaucer. Nevertheless Flanders was a place I associated with conflict. My great grandfather fought somewhere here in the First World War. One of only three in his regiment to survive, he returned home with lungs ruined by gas and his career as a professional footballer over.
Before leaving home I'd worried I might be uneasy at Villa Hellebosch (I'd already translated the name as Hell's Wood, unnerving for an aficionado of horror movies). I know the night sounds of the city, but in the countryside no one can hear you scream. I wondered if I'd lie awake through the hours of darkness imagining the ghosts of dead soldiers pulling themselves free of their graves to crawl across muddy fields towards the house.
I needn't have troubled myself. At times it seemed miraculous that this gleaming green country had ever witnessed horror, or even that Vollezele could exist in the same world as busy cities such as Glasgow and Brussels. And even though each time it rained I thought of my great grandfather and his comrades, where they experienced carnage, I found tranquillity.
It is a risk for writers to leave the seat of their inspiration. Sometimes everything they require lies in reach of their own doorstep, their own bed. But for those of us who travel, the trick can be to go somewhere very different from our usual environment; the northerner to the south, the city dweller to the countryside, the lowlander to the highlands.
The peace of Vollezele enabled me to explore my own country from a distance while at the same time introducing me to a place which already formed a part of my dreamscape. My original images are still there, the young Edinburgh footballer used to Scottish downpours suddenly swamped by the mud of Flanders, but superimposed on them are my own experiences.
I'll remember the natural sounds, more soothing than any silence, that percolate Villa Hellebosch's grounds, the lazy dogs that suddenly tear across the meadow in search of rabbits and most of all the kindness shown to me by my hostess, Alexandra Cool, her housekeeper Anne Herremans, my fellow resident Marco Pogacar and the Het beschrijf team; Ilke Froyen, Sigrid Bousset, Petra Broeders and Kristien Thielmans. Because in the end of course, it is people as much as landscapes, sounds, and weather that form one's impression of a place. The citizens of Flanders I met were as warm and welcoming as my friends in Glasgow. Maybe that's what ultimately made this land which is so very different from my own feel like home.
25.05.09 > 21.06.09