If you happen to follow me on social media, you have probably already seen Clare Melinsky’s wonderful, psychedelic cover for Ring The Hill, but I thought it was high time I showed it off here too, as it’s everything I hoped it would be. Tomorrow morning I am delivering my final edit of the book, so it now officially exists, and the deadline for getting your name printed in the back of the first edition hardback is fast approaching (midnight on June 16th!). I know a lot of you who subscribe to this site have already kindly helped bring it into existence with your pledges, and I thought it would be nice to tell you a few things about the way it has turned out….
ONE: Ring The Hill is my eleventh book. It is not so much about hills as around them, but even that doesn’t really explain it. It’s divided into six sections, which are really more like six small memoirs, each in an obvious relationships with the others, each revolving around undulating landscapes in the UK. One is sort of about exploring Somerset, one is sort of about swimming in one special bit of sea under a similar special set of cliffs, one is about a crazy impulsive artistic experiment in an icy, lonely place, one is about my personal relationship with a moor, one is about hares but not about hares too, and one is about being allowed to live in a special otherworldly house in a special otherworldly place by accident. I really love the process of tightening something down to its most essential form, so while the sections are long, and digressive, I think of them as sort of minimalist, too. They’re not in chronological order, but the order they are in is important, and makes a difference, kind of like the order of tracks on an album is important, and makes a difference to an album and the way we let it settle and live in our mind.
TWO: I used to think a life was one story. I don’t any more. This book reflects that. Totally different stories have run through my life concomitantly. I have enjoyed exploring this idea here, and letting it lead me to a slightly different new way – for me, at least – of structuring a book, where separate sections share some of the same time frame, but are about very different patterns and narratives.
THREE: I have never been early in my delivery of a book. There’s always two stages to the writing for me: a longish period of faffing, where the terror builds, then a frantic, intense period of putting all the nonsense in my head to paper, in the order it needs to be, just in time for the deadline, or just after it. I beat myself up for the faffing but later realise it’s barely less important than the writing itself. I stretched the faffing out a tiny bit too far this time, got a little bit too into my research: sometimes did a long drive and long walk, just for the sake of one good sentence. But I see now that was worthwhile too. What it meant, though, was the final period of writing was incredibly intense. A huge amount of coffee and a huge amount of swimming helped me through it.
FOUR: I feel like I’ve seen quite clearly while writing this book, had very little vaseline on my lens. I think the swimming, and not having a single hangover during the creation of it, have probably contributed to that. One of the things I saw quite clearly was that a lot of the stuff I’ve done in the past – even the stuff that might have seemed like a crazy diversion, or a mistake, or an irrational or impractical way to spend my time – was about getting to the stage where I could write this book.
FIVE: It’s just a book, about some fairly niche stuff, which – despite having various ecological themes – has little obvious connection to what the majority of the population are talking about at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century. It’s probably not going to change the world, or even my life. But I genuinely feel it features the best writing of my life so far, or certainly the most enjoyable writing, and for me those two things are now interchangeable. I learned a lot while I wrote it, and feel like a different person to the one I was when I started it, so in that way you actually could say it has already changed my life. I have to learn when I write a book. I have to create something new – if only in a minor way – out of it. That’s the only way it can be fun, or worthwhile, for me.
SIX: Hares are another theme, zigzagging through the book (the title comes from a 13th Century name for them) but their presence is an elusive one. I saw hares every week when I lived and regularly walked in East Anglia, but my sightings of them since living in the West Country have been vague, or – if not – have involved seeing them not in their living form. They have occupied a liminal space in the margins of my life. But since I completed the book, something curious has happened: I have seen two hares, on the lane right outside my house. One even ran straight at me, before diverting at the last second, as if for a practical joke. It is like the hares are saying, “Ok. He’s done. We can come out now.”
SEVEN: Ring The Hill is not a sequel to my last-but-one book, 21st Century Yokel, but it is a companion piece. It has slightly less wildlife in it than 21st Century Yokel, slightly more landscape, slightly more history and folklore, slightly less anecdotal writing about my earlier life. Its canvas is less broad if we are talking about history in the personal sense – it doesn’t go back further than about 2012 – but broader if we are talking about history in a wider sense. That said, most of the history it deals with is small: the history of villages and farms and cottages and mounds and lanes. Not kings and queens and revolution and plague. Ok, I lied. There is quite a bit of plague.
EIGHT: If you don’t have moments of doubt while you’re writing a book, you probably shouldn’t be writing a book. When I had moments of doubt during the writing of this one, my test was to ask myself, “How would you feel if you lost everything you’d written, forever, right now?” My answer was always, “Utterly, possibly unrecoverably, devastated.” Then I carried on. And always remembered to back up. Twice.
NINE: Moving house – which I did three times, over long distances, between December 2017 and August 2018, and twice between October 2013 and March 2014 – is not the main theme of the book, but it contributes to the book’s atmosphere a lot. Moving house so many times, into different rented places in different regions of the country, has been expensive, but it has made the fabric of my writing about Place more colourful, and enabled me to double-stitch, as I might not have if it was just writing about a life lived out of a backpack. Do I live in a totally disorganised, financially precarious, chaotic, impulsive way because I write the books I write, or do I write the books I write because I live in a totally disorganised, financially precarious, chaotic, impulsive way? I have lost track, to be honest. But it seems to be the way now, and I’m quite enjoying it, so I’m just going to keep going with it. I crowdfund my books, don’t work for any national media, so these days my books are my only boss, and I listen when they tell me things. This book told me that when I move again, which I have to soon, I should try another slightly different part of the UK, so I’m probably going to obey it.
TEN: I like to go for solitary walks, and walking is the engine beneath Ring The Hill, but it’s not a solitary book: it’s teeming with people, just like my other books, but perhaps even more so. People who some people might call “ordinary” but are far less ordinary and more interesting than people who might often be superficially viewed as more interesting and important. These people have told me some great stories that have made me laugh, made my heart soar (and sore), and frightened me in the hours directly before dawn. I feel more grateful to more people for what they’ve advertently and inadvertently contributed to my work than I have when coming to the end of any of my other ten books. I feel most grateful of all to my mum, who has very advertently contributed thirteen new linoprints to Ring The Hill, free of charge. The arthritis in her hands has got steadily more painful over several years, making it harder and harder for her to cut the lino (she already uses a soft lino alternative to make it a little easier), which means I am even more grateful. Those who have read 21st-Century Yokel and my previous book, Help The Witch, will know she contributed a lot of work to those, too. She’ll still be making art, but these thirteen prints – including the hare below – will be her last ever work with lino, and I think they are a magnificent finale.
To order a special first edition hardback of Ring The Hill, with extra art and your name printed in the back as a supporter before the June 16th deadline, click here.
I don’t write for any mainstream media publications and chose to put my writing on this site instead: around 200,000 words of it so far. It’s all free, but if you feel like donating a small monthly amount to help me keep going, you can do so either by paypal or GoCardless. You’ll also find a subscription link on the home page if you’d like to sign up to be notified when a new piece is published.
My previous book 21st Century Yokel is now out in paperback and you can find out more about it at this amazon link, but, if you have the choice, I’d prefer that you purchase it via an independent bookshop. I also have a few copies of it here at home that I can sign for you and sell to you at cover price.