Amidst all the high-profile deaths, the worrying political upheavals, and surprising football, what stands out clearest in my memory for 2016 is Planet Earth II. David Attenborough’s masterpiece and the BBC’s swansong for many years to come.
It was the most inspiring thing to be produced and the most significant. And whilst, on a personal note, my trip to Madrid was the outstanding highlight, Planet Earth II has left the tyre-marks of some beautiful, crazy driving all over my mind’s labyrinthine pathways.
As a writer, especially one so passionately interested by the aesthetics of landscape, I can’t help but be jumped into action. Inertia, in the face of such splendour, is impossible. I can still recall with shivers down my spine, the sight of baby iguanas escaping, or trying to escape, swarms of razor snakes, or snow leopards gliding brutally beautiful across the Himalayas, or those magnificent undulations of starlings over the Eternal City. I wouldn’t be a writer at all if I didn’t wish to somehow put that on paper.
Of course, the art of television (we don’t say that nearly enough) and the literary arts are sisters from another mister. Literature is the least visual of arts, for obvious reasons. However, it does share one very crucial element with Planet Earth II: its capacity for wonder.
From the stellar wordplay of F Scott Fitzgerald, to the numinous ruminations of Virginia Woolf, and to the battle-hardened landscapes of Hemingway, literature, like David Attenborough, takes us places we’ve never been, shown us people we have never met, and shared with us experiences we never thought possible. It might not be visual, but it is no less awe-inspiring.
I’ve always been drawn to landscape. All the writers I admire most, from Conrad to Hemingway to Greene, could have been equally successful Impressionist painters. And of course, in Attenborough, landscape is god of the gods. But in literature, landscape alone isn’t enough – more’s the pity.
Landscape has fashioned our species. And, on an individual level, it has shaped our very personalities. Think about it, would you be the same person today if you were born in Siberia instead of New York? Even small changes affect us: the suburban you might have been very different than the rural you. Landscape is our sculptor. Whilst Fate writes the scripts of our lives. And what does this tell us about human nature?
To know the man, to know the nation, to know the family, you need to know the landscape. It affects how we change, how we evolve, how we abandon our childhood selves and become something familiar but other.
So for 2017 I am embarking on a new project. It is tentatively titled the Earth Series. A series of novels and novellas that take place in different landscapes all over the world. From mountains, to forests to caves and cities. And though the stories will be standalone there will be, of course, a common theme; they will all be variations on a theme. The theme is: how does the landscape influence our make-up and, does it work hand in hand with family upbringing, or does it rival it? We are all, whether we like it or not, made in the image of our parents. I’ve seen that glaringly enough from my job in a primary school. But does where we grow up rival the influence of who raises us?
I want to know what goes into the making of man.
Because, only when you can understand the formative forces that moulded the individual, can you hope to find an individualised, tailor-made Purpose for that individual i.e. yourself.
As always, I am interested in the pursuit of purpose and the nature of pleasure. But first, we have to go to the roots. And to do that, we have to travel. Not for the sake of it. There is a certain scientific rationale behind the need to travel. Just as neurologists understand the way the human brain works by understanding how it fails (schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder, etc) so we can understand the influence of landscape on man by radically changing his environment!
The first novel in the series is in the first draft stage. The Shadows Of Paradise is in the editing stage and will be ready by early 2017.
They will be short novels. A la The Old Man And The Sea and The Great Gatsby. They will be Impressionist novels. Baroque ones, too; a detailed eye will be cast on the tools of pleasure, be it food, drink, art or skiing. (Oh and the characters will be Maltese!) They will be journalistic novels, taking the reader to places they’ve never been and showing them things, both beautiful and damnable, they never knew existed. But above all, in the spirit of Attenborough, they will be novels filled with child-like awe and the unshakable scent of wonder.
Happy New Year!