When my first novel, the Seaborne, was published, it was the culmination of a lifetime. But how closely a book about another world would relate to contemporary circumstances in this world, and how the various influences of a lifetime were to play out, I was not to know until in retrospect.
I was brought up on books of other worlds. When Lucy stepped out of the wardrobe and met Mr Tumnus in C.S.Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe I was there. I ate up the Narnia books, and, later, J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels.
We were a church family, in an age when it was still commonplace to go to church. The idea of the beingness of God did not at all seem contradicted by not being able to see or physically experience ‘Him.’ It was all a part of the other worlds of books, except that this idea had in a sense jumped out of the book into everyday actuality.
And there was a third chord in my growing-up: a fascination with all things living, growing, existing in their limitless variety. I wanted to know how they all related to each other; how it was that they did what they did. I had a greenhouse full of cacti, an aquarium full of sad sea-creatures, shelves of books on biology.
All these strands lay waiting while I passed through medical school, qualified as a doctor, then trained as a priest. But it was on holiday on the west coast of Ireland years later that they began to come together to birth a full-length novel. I was driving down a little single-track lane, which passed right through the middle of a farmyard. The farmhouse – I can see it now – looked as if it belonged to another age. The thatch hung low over the dark windows; the whitewashed walls looked thick, compacted of cob. It felt to me as if I’d passed into another world.
What would it be like, I wondered, for someone finding himself transported into another time, another mode of being? People would be the same, yet the stage on which they played their parts might be very different. I wrote a few chapters, parts of which remain, including the scene of a man being pulled, barely alive, from the sea and waking into a different world.
And there I left it, while my own world fell apart around me.
Years later, divorced, retired and my too-uncritical faith demolished and re-built in response to life’s events, I met Gillian, who challenged my world-view but also encouraged me to take up the novel I had started so long ago.
The anatomy of language was a part of me from my school days, and I consciously worked on that canvas to write beautifully. In this I could draw on my knowledge of the natural world to bring colour and detail into the backcloth against which the people of the Island played their part. I chose my language carefully, keeping away from Latinisms as much as possible to reflect the simpler, more direct speech of the Islanders. I allowed Island words to come to me, and Island ways of putting things. These are left without explanation, so that the reader has a little taste of my main character, John’s, own experience, and has to find out their meaning for themselves.
Like H.G.Wells’ traveller in The Time Machine, I wanted to use the device of parallel worlds to critique my own culture. I have been dismayed to witness the many ways in which, up to the time of writing, most countries of the world have ignored the warnings of environmental scientists about the effects of human activity on our planet. In exploring a world without these impacts I may be accused of romanticism. But, as Jay Griffiths powerfully demonstrates in Kith, a romantic view grounded in a real appreciation of the world of nature, leads to a freer, more vital and inclusive way of life than the materialist reductive directions often favoured today.
At a time when unrestricted, world-wide travel has enabled a chance viral mutation to spread devastatingly round the globe, I ask the reader to look at the strengths of a community where ‘a long way away’ is two days’ walk; where what lies beyond the seas surrounding their small island is mostly unknown.
It is choice that becomes key to my story. John feels, as he runs away from his failed business, his failed relationship, that he has no choice. In his near-death experience as the three fishermen bring him to the Island he is unclear whether he has chosen to go on living, or has been chosen. And finally, in a dream-like state, while the clattering helicopter tells him he must be rescued or die, the seabird allows him to choose – to choose which world he will live in.
I emphatically did not set out to write an allegory, and, like Tolkien, I hold that that is not what I have written. And yet, as Frodo Baggins becomes a type of Christ, so also I found after I had finished writing the Seaborne that I had tapped into that perennial story of life and death and rebirth. It’s a story that’s re-enacted every year in the seasons. It’s the Easter story.