Winter Solstice and Christmasses Past, Present and Fictional

Winter Solstice and Christmasses Past, Present and Fictional

It occurred to me, as we approach Christmas that I’ve never written a Christmas story. I have come close with the final scene of ‘Fallen Splendour’ where we join the Christmas staff ball at Larkspur Hall in 1888, and I have also come close as James Collins, in my novel, ‘The Saddling.’ I say ‘close’, because, in Saddling, there is no Christmas because there is no Christian religion, not since the Blacklocks family took over the village in… I forget the year but before the witch trials of ‘The Witchling’ and sometime after the first return of ‘The Eastling’ in the 13th century.

Instead, Saddling, the village of the series, follows its own Lore based on nature and the turning of the seasons. The first in the series, ‘The Saddling’ opens on winter solstice night, 1292 when a great storm threatens the Romney Marshes with flooding. That is based on a real event, the great storm of 1287 where villages were washed away, and lives and livestock were lost.

Part of our harbour in flood this week.

As the winter solstice is only a couple of days away, I thought this was an appropriate time to talk about it and the Christmases of my youth on the Marsh, and now, here on the Greek island, Symi. Where, by the way, the approach of the solstice combining with an upcoming full moon, has resulted in our harbour already being slightly flooded.

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice, hiemal solstice or hibernal solstice, also known as midwinter, occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. It happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere. This year, it occurs at 10.02 UTC on Monday and marks the northern hemisphere’s shortest day, the first day of winter.

This year, according to The National Geographic, “… just head of Christmas, two of the solar system’s brightest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, [will] engage in a celestial dance that will bring them within planetary kissing distance in the evening sky.”

A bit flowery perhaps, but true. “The moment of closest approach arrives on 21st December—the winter solstice for those in the Northern Hemisphere and the start of summer for those in the Southern Hemisphere. The two planets will appear closer together than at any time in almost 400 years in an event known as a great conjunction.”

According to Astronomy.com, On 21st December, Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer in Earth’s night sky than they have since 1226 A.D. This event is being described as causing a ‘Christmas star’, which all seems nicely appropriate, and the date, 1226, gives me a very tenuous link back to ‘The Saddling.’

After the initial storm scene of ‘The Saddling’ which sets up the Lore that is to follow and the superstitions and rites of the village, the story cuts to 18th December 2012. It is 720 years after the great storm, and the central character, Tom Carey is struggling to keep his life together, obsessed with tracing his family tree in order to inherit a fortune from his last family member. By chapter eight, he has arrived in the village of Saddling and, as his car has broken down miles away, seeks a room at the inn, The Crow and Whiteback. It’s charmingly old-fashioned but shows no signs of Christmas, and when the landlady, Susan Vye appears through the floor from the cellar below, and he takes her by surprise, Tom comments, ‘Nice place, but not very Christmassy, Only four more shopping days to go.’ He laughed, she didn’t.

The story unfolds as Tom searches for clues to his family mystery, the storm clouds gather, he befriends two local lads who are preparing for their saddling, and he learns that the ceremony is to be held on the evening of the winter solstice. In our present world, this Monday.

The Saddling series plays on such natural events as this year’s ‘Christmas star’, the solstices and equinoxes, the natural birth, harvesting, dying and rebirth of the land, the relationships between man and nature, farming and festivals. Apart from finding it interesting to research, I used this natural flow of the earth as a background because I wanted to set the stories against the naturalness of change and difference. By which I mean, as Tom makes his way through book one, he comes to realise that like it or not, he is attracted to another man. As the series progresses, the villagers gradually come to accept that Tom and Barry’s ‘friendship’ is as natural as the changing seasons, the tide, the earth’s cycle, and that, underneath it all, is the message of the books.

Winters on Romney Marsh

Fairfiled, Romney Marsh and St Thomas Becket church – the inspiration for The Saddling. (The church features on the cover of all three Saddling books.)

I wasn’t aware of the solstice when I was growing up on the Marsh, but I was aware of Christmas. I didn’t have any particular interest in the fields and deeks (irrigation ditches/dykes that prevent the land from flooding) or the farming way of life, but I must have absorbed it. My best friend from nine to 12 years was the son of a farmer. I’d cycle over to his house about a mile away into the wide, flat landscape of the fields to play in the hay barn, make rafts on the wider deeks, help his dad deliver lambs at lambing (though more likely get in the way), and sit down to huge suppers of ‘lookers pie’ prepared by his classic farmer’s-wife mum.

[On the Marsh, a looker is a shepherd and lookers’ pie is shepherds’ pie made with chops not mince.]

The ruins of All Saints church, Hope

I have never been very good at sleeping, and in my teens, I would sometimes walk out onto the marsh at night. It has an atmosphere of its own, with nothing to hear but the cry of an owl, the breeze in the hawthorn bushes and the occasional plop of a frog leaping into a dyke. I walked to a place called Hope*, just outside New Romney, one of the villages that were washed away in the great storm and now nothing more than a ruined church wall, just to enjoy the peace and the smell of damp coarse-grass and sheep treddles.

[That’s a Kentish word for sheep poo, a smell that, when you’ve grown up with it, is more comforting than you might think!]

Later in my teens, one of my best friends was also the son of a farmer, and I’d visit his house too. As is the way of the Marsh, he lived next door (half a mile) from his cousin, my earlier bestie, the families farmed together, but in this case, I visited to play on his dad’s snooker table, and play music as we were in a swing band by then. His dad, by the way, is now in his 90s and still actively farming his land.

Christmases

The Romney Marshes before they were ‘inned’ (irrigated)

And then there were the Christmases. These, for me, were traditional family affairs. We were expected to attend Midnight Mass at the parish church where I ‘sang’ in the choir and learnt to play the organ. As my two brothers and I got older, we went under the bribe of being able to open a present when we returned home. Older still, this tradition ended up with my dad being the only one who attended church, me staying at home to watch concerts on TV and wait for my older brothers to return from the pub when we opened presents, often not going to bed until well after three in the morning.

If you were wondering where Romney Marsh is; it’s on the south coast of England.

Another big part of my teen years was music, as you might have gathered from my Jackson books like ‘The Blake Inheritance‘ and ‘Home From Nowhere.’ I started playing the piano aged six or seven and carried on throughout primary, prep and secondary school to finally rise to the complicated heights of grade eight in my early 20s. I was inspired in music by teachers at both prep school (where the music teacher took me to play the organ in Hythe church when I was 11, and from when I was transfixed by the musical ‘machines’). At secondary school, our music teacher arranged for us to attend concerts in Canterbury Cathedral and elsewhere at his own expense, encouraged me to stage musical revues and write songs for the junior years. He also saw a friend and me through our A-Level, arranging for Dominic (the only other A-Level music student) to be in a masterclass with Julian Lloyd Webber which I attended, and had a great knack of staging the Christmas concerts at the parish churches of New Romney and Lydd. Being a piano player, I wasn’t needed for the orchestra, but was dragged in to play the percussion (not as easy as it sounds) and sometimes ‘sing’ in the choir. I put ‘sing’ like that because I mouthed along more than sounded notes.

From Past to Present

Our tree this year.

All of these random reminiscences have a bearing on what I write now. The loneliness of the Marshes at night, the earthy, natural way of life, lambing, harvests, hay bales, hawthorn-lined, narrow roads and the deeks, the wide, flat landscape of the drained marshland and its rich history, the memories of cold legs in damp-smelling churches, the vibration of the organ in the last bars of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, and the present-giving by the fire… The older you get, the more you reminisce, but in my case, the more I put such reminiscences into my books, although often, from a different character’s perspective.

And now, the past not only influences what I write, but what we do at Christmas. This year may be slightly different, but we will still be able to be with our ‘logical’ family, our two godsons on the island and their mum as we have been for the last 17 out of 18 Christmases. It will be a day of fun, feasting and falling about laughing against an underscore of Annie Lennox and carols from Kings, godson #1 on his piano and, if we can drag him screaming from his Xbox, godson #2 on his guitar (he hasn’t got it yet, and I hope it arrives in time).

But before all that, we have Monday and the Winter Solstice, and it strikes me that if you’ve not already read it, you could get hold of a copy of The Saddling today, 19th, and start reading it, following the story day by day on the exact dates the story is set. You will reach the climax on Monday night, and if you are lucky enough to have a thunderstorm that night, you’ll get the full dramatic effect.

Whether you do that or not, have a peaceful solstice and seasonal feast or holy day, and I will be back with you on 2nd January with my next rambling blog post.

The Saddling is available to download now on Kindle and is available in Kindle Unlimited, and in paperback.

‘A Place Called Hope’ by Emma Batten

* A Place Called Hope is a novel by the daughter of my childhood piano teacher, and is very much worth reading, as are all of Emma Batten’s Romney Marsh, historical novels.

Notes From Home

Notes From Home

I thought I would combine book news with a personal update this week, and I have a few things to tell you about.

Banyak & Fecks

First of all, ‘Banyak & Fecks’, published at the start of the week, has already received a cracking, five-star review. This is a prequel to The Clearwater Mysteries and is written in, dare I say it, a more literary style. It’s not the usual murder, madness and mayhem of the books that follow, there are no cryptic clues for the reader to solve as you travel through the story with the Clearwater Crew, and although I’d consider it romantic, it’s not a romance.

Banyak & Fecks is the story of how Silas and Andrej met on the streets of the East End in 1844. It tells of their growing relationship through to the day or so before ‘Deviant Desire‘ starts in 1888. The boys were teenagers at this time (although that word didn’t exist then), and I wanted to give an idea of what it’s like for a young man to experience the confusions of sexuality at that age and in that era.

I also wanted to drop in plotlines and people who appear in the books that follow, and astute readers will notice some. Without giving things away, when you read the story, you meet characters from ‘Deviant Desire’ (Molly at the rope house, for example, and a couple of the future victims of the Ripper). You also meet Eddie Lovemount from books two to four. James Wright is mentioned, as is the Cleaver Street brothel from ‘Fallen Splendour.’ I even put in a meeting with a doctor who has a bushy moustache and who Fecker thinks was called Marked-land, or something. It is Dr Markland, of course, appearing a few years before his first proper appearance in book one.

What I also did, was to lay down some of Silas’ past which could later come back to haunt him, and that leads me onto…

My Next Writing Project

Tower Bridge, London, being built in circa 1889, as mentioned in Banyak & Fecks.

To be honest, I’ve been having trouble starting the next Clearwater book, and I think that’s because I stepped away from the series to add in the prequel. Having said that, I have written four different openings of the same story, sometimes three or four chapters, but can’t decide which way to go. The other day, I went back to an old file and reread one of my opening chapter ideas, and something went ‘ping!’ So, I am now starting on that version of the next story, the working title of which was ‘Men of a Similar Heart’, but which, I think, will now be something else.

I won’t say too much about book nine, as I hope it will become, but I will tell you that it currently starts in December 1889 at the second Clearwater Foundation Gala – as foreshadowed in ‘Bitter Bloodline’, which is taking place at Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre. I intend to tie the story in with something that happened in ‘Banyak & Fecks’ that involved a photographer… And that’s all I am going to say about that. If all goes well, you can look forward to the next Clearwater instalment early next year.

Meanwhile…

Giveaway

Before that, we have Christmas, and as you may know by now, we’re running a free book giveaway. Head to my Facebook page, give it a like and follow, and every day, you can enter a draw to win a signed paperback copy of ‘Banyak and Fecks.’ There’s a different quote from a blurb or book every day, and all you have to do is correctly identify the book to have your name put into the hat. You can enter every day, so you have 24 chances of winning.

And while all that is going on…

Home news – a trip to Canada

I have been posting five times per week on my personal blog, www.symidream.com

The view from our sitting room.

This is a blog I have kept up for the last 14 years (I think it is, certainly a long time), and there, I put up photos of the Greek island Neil and I live on, and write a little each day about what we’re up to. Sometimes I write more in-depth posts, and sometimes I just ramble about what I am writing. These past three weeks, I have been writing about the holiday we took back in early March before C-19 took over when we went to London and Canada. You’ll have to go back to the start of November to begin at post one, but from there, you can follow the story through to the last day (yesterday). From now on, I’ll be back to my usual kind of Symi blogging.

Symi harbour last week.

For us, here in our rented house overlooking a glorious harbour, it’s mainly been about being locked down (the Greek national lockdown is now running until at least the 14th December), and so we’ve not been doing much. We have been out for a few walks, Neil more so than me, and we’ve watched a lot of TV. I’ve also started back on building a plastic model kit. This one is of The Invisible Man, and the kitchen table is currently covered with paints and pieces while the air is perfumed with white spirit and glue.

Not me, but my boarding school as I remember it.

I used to make these kits when I was 13 at prep school and took up the hobby again a couple of years ago. I make the Universal Horror Model kits, originally produced by Aurora with glow in the dark pieces. These days, the originals are collectors’ items (I have two) and not exactly cheap. So, I make the remoulds. The best time to do this is when we have one of our Greek island biblical thunderstorms, as we do in the winter when we unplug the router and computers, and I can sit for hours fiddling with paintbrushes and let my imagination wander to create the next Clearwater scene.

The current state of the kitchen table.

We have also been preparing for Christmas, though no decorations yet. Every year for the past 16 or so, we’ve spent Christmas Day with Jenine (our bestie and now my PA), and her two children, our godsons. Hopefully, this year will be no different, and it’s always a day of madness and fun. I’ve been teaching our youngest godson, Harry (13), to play the piano, and we currently have lessons via WhatsApp. He’s only been learning a year and is already over halfway through his first grade, so I am a very proud god-dad.

Get In Touch

I’ll finish by asking you if you have anything you’d like me to write about in my weekly blog. Would you like to know more about my writing process, how I came to be living on a Greek island, what I am planning, what’s my favourite book…? Anything at all, just drop me an email to jack @ jacksonmarsh.com, or leave a comment on my Facebook page, and I’ll do my best to blog about what you want to read.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, thanks for your reviews of my books, stay safe, and most of all, keep reading.

A week in lockdown: A personal post.

A week in lockdown: A personal post.

Over recent weeks I’ve blogged about ‘Banyak & Fecks’, book covers, my ghost and horror stories as James Collins, my editing process and Coming Out Week. This week, I thought it high time I filled you in on what I, as a person, have been doing, and what is happening in my real world. So, here is a personal post about a week in lockdown.

Where I live

As you may know, I live in Greece on a small island called Symi, which, if you look on the map, you will find not far north-east of Rhodes. It’s in the south Aegean, closer to the Turkish coast than it is to the next Greek island. Symi is small, yes, but not the smallest island in the country, and we have around 3,000 inhabitants. There are only two main settlements on the island, Yialos, the harbour area and Horio, the village that rambles from the top of the harbour bay, through a dip and up again against the side of our ‘mountain’, the Vigla. Neil and I are lucky enough to rent a house overlooking the harbour entrance, and our view is… Well, our view is this:

Greece is currently in its second lockdown since March. When this pandemic first reared its ugly head, Greece was one of the first countries to react and called the country into lockdown well before the end of March. I know that because we were returning from a once in a lifetime holiday to Canada. When we left Greece in early March, the virus was something that was happening elsewhere but still something to keep an eye on. Travelling through Athens and London, we were advised to wash our hands, use sanitiser and keep a little distance from others; that was it, and that was how it was when we reached Canada too.

After five days travelling across the country on a train, we got off in Vancouver to find the world had changed, and the return journey involved changing flights and plans, isolation and, ultimately quarantine at home.

Symi Dream

If you want to know more about this trip, I have just started blogging about it on my five-times-a-week blog over at www.symidream.com There, we’re currently on day six (still in London), but you can click back to find the start of the story, or just click to this page to read the first post and carry on from there.

We’re almost in that situation again because we’re not allowed out between 9pm and 5am, we must send a text message for permission to go to shops and a few other allowed activities, and we can’t visit friends. Everything is closed apart from essential services, and we have another two weeks to go before we can ease off.

So, what have I been doing?

Writing

As you can see from the way I ramble through these blog posts, I enjoy writing, and that’s what I have been doing. Actually, this past week, I have been doing a fine edit on ‘Banyak & Fecks’, the Clearwater prequel due for release at the end of the month. I have five days before it is due with my proof-reader, and still a quarter of the book to go through. I’ll reread it again after proofing of course, but we’re nearly there.

Between reads, I reread ‘Fallen Splendour’, one of my favourite Clearwater adventures. I’ve been going through the books making a few minor adjustments like typos we all missed (not many), getting rid of a few words the characters use that I’ve since learnt were not in use in 1888 (eek!), and generally checking facts against what I am writing in the prequel to maintain consistency.

Another of the projects I am working on, in the background, now and then, is The Clearwater Companion. This may end up on this website as a guide for fans of the ‘Clearwater Crew’, or it may end up being published, but it’s a collection of notes and backgrounds about the characters and the story. I have an artist in India who is turning cover images and descriptions of characters into pencil drawings for the book, and this month’s drawing is of Silas Hawkins. She sent it over this week, so I present it here for the first time.

Reading

I do like a good book. Not only as something to read, but something to hold, and this week, I took delivery of two new research books.

The first is titled, ‘East End 1888’ and is by William J. Fishman. It is a study of Tower Hamlets through the year 1888, which is perfect for me. Tower Hamlets (a London borough) includes the districts of Whitechapel and Limehouse, or, in my world, Greychurch and Limedock, and 1888 was, of course, the year of the Ripper murders, the inspiration for ‘Deviant Desire.’

The second book is titled. ‘The True History of a Little Ragamuffin’ by James Greenwood. James Greenwood (1832-1929) was a British social explorer, journalist and writer, and brother of the editor of The Pall Mall Gazette. You may remember, a while ago, I wrote about reading ‘A Night in the Workhouse’, the first piece of what we’d now call undercover journalism, published in January 1866. I found this via the online newspaper archive and have it in PDF if anyone wants to read it. I read about it first in ‘Slumming’ another book I recently acquired, and the workhouse article is the basis of Silas’ night in a workhouse in ‘Banyak & Fecks.’

‘The True History of a Little Ragamuffin,’ is a reprint of the original story Greenwood wrote based on his research and experiences working in the slums of East London. It tells the story of a young boy growing up in Clerkenwell, so, for me, it’s full of observations, language and details about the time I am currently writing in. It is, though, in tiny print and not easy to read.

 

The smell of books

Recently, before lockdown, my 13-year-old godson came for a piano lesson (I’ve been teaching him for a year now). One of the things I get him to do is find fun facts from an encyclopaedia of music I bought him last Christmas as the lessons are also about music generally. I have the same book, given to me on my 13th birthday, and thus, it’s rather old now and has a distinctive smell, as books do. Harry (or Little Mozart as I call him because he is so talented), was sitting next to me as I opened the encyclopaedia and he said, ‘I love the smell of books.’ I couldn’t agree more, and to hear it come from someone brought up with screens and phones, video games and computers as learning materials, I thought it was delightful. It pleased me to hear so much, I almost let him off his scales that day. Almost.

Other Symi winter things we do

But my world isn’t all about writing, I’d say only 80% of it is, the other 20% is made up of watching TV.

No, I’m joking, although we do spend a lot of the wintertime watching TV as there’s not a lot else to do on Symi in the darker months. This lockdown, to us, is not dissimilar to a usual winter on a small Greek island where many tavernas are closed, the beaches too, and where the weather can range from gloriously sunny to Biblically thunderous. One of the most popular questions from summer visitors is, ‘What do you do in the winter?’ I shan’t tell you what Neil says we do all winter but will tell you that there is a lot to see to, and plenty of things to keep one occupied.

Walking, for example. Up the hills, down to the bays, or even just around the ruins of the old village, many of which have not been repaired since WWII and the years afterwards when the island struggled to get back on its feet. It’s an atmospheric place, and was the inspiration for my book, ‘The Judas Inheritance’ (James Collins) which was made into a film in 2013 called ‘The 13th‘ (still to be released).

My writing station

As well as that, when we’re not locked down, we spend time with our godsons (Harry, 13, and Sam, 17) and their mum, Jenine (age withheld), playing cards, having family dinners, laughing a lot and being a family. Armistead Maupin once made a distinction between his ‘biological family’ and his ‘logical family’, and the boys and their mum are our ‘logical family.’ We have spent every Christmas with them bar one for the last 18 years, and we are looking forward to doing the same again this year.

So, another thing I’ve been doing this week is buying Christmas presents online as the shops are closed.

My other writing station, my father’s old desk.

We’ve also been preparing the house for the winter. Summers are hot here, up to 45 degrees and above sometimes, but winters are cold, down to 5 degrees but with a windchill that produces ice on the rosemary bushes. We also get a lot of rain, so we’ve painted the flat roofs to stop the rain coming through, and found the old towels to wedge under the ill-fitting doors and windows. I’ve yet to hang the draught-excluder curtains at the balcony windows (they face north) and the front door, but that’s on my list. As is my Invisible Man horror model kit which I started last winter and aim to finish this year.

What lies Ahead?

What lies ahead for me for the next week is finishing ‘Banyak & Fecks’ before 20th. I also have two piano lesson/practice sessions with Little Mozart which we are conducting via WhatsApp, me at my piano, him at his further up the hill, and I really should go out and do a few more healthy walks. Apart from that… We have a new season of The Crown on Netflix starting tomorrow, so that’s going to be a binge, I have two books to read, and my Clearwater bible to keep up to date with info from the prequel that I’ve not yet entered into it.

Inside the Clearwater Bible

As well as all that, I need to find time to make those minor changes to ‘Fallen Splendour’ and upload the new files to Amazon. Doing this doesn’t take the book off the shelf, and I’ve done it with books one to three in the series recently. It only takes a couple of hours, and I feel much better for doing it, which I do at my other desk on my old computer as this one doesn’t have the same programme. It gives me a chance to sit on the posh chair at the posh desk (above) which was my father’s, rather than my computer station. Oh, and I must also hoover the carpet because our cleaning-man (Sam, the other godson) can’t come for the next two weeks. We pay him, by the way, it’s not slavery, it’s his job, and very good he is at it too.

So, that’s a personal ramble to make a change from the books and writing posts of late, and I hope I’ve not bored you too much. I’ll be back next Saturday with something else. Meanwhile, if you want to escape lockdown and come on an adventure with us, click over to my personal Symi Dream blog. We’re currently in London with Paddington bear, meeting Jennifer Saunders and some old school friends, and are about to jet off to Toronto and Vancouver.

See you next week!

Symi Dream
The Judas Inheritance