Posts Tagged 'dreams'

Lost in time

Sometimes, on a still, silent, out-of-season day in Crimea, the past feels close enough to touch, as close as the next range of mountains looks in these astonishingly clear late Autumn afternoons.

I’ve been staying in South-West Crimea, and yesterday I climbed up to Shuldan cave monastery, where brother Anatoly lives in a way that can scarcely differ from that of the monks here a hundred or five hundred years ago.

From the caves I looked out over the hills down towards Sevastopol, and the cliffs by Balaklava, and the sea glittering silver. It’s a view, give or take a few factory chimneys and roads, which I guess a soldier in the Crimean war a hundred and sixty years ago would perfectly recognise, were he lucky enough to get away from fighting and cholera and make it up here, to fresh air and peace and brother Anatoly offering words of wisdom like pearls not to be cast before swine.

Still day-dreaming about Crimean war soldiers escaping from the battlefield, I walked on towards Eski-Kermen cave city (of which mediaeval travellers recorded that no one knew who built it or even what it was called…) I was climbing down into a valley when someone called out to me “Halt! Who goes there?”

Round the next outcrop of rock I came across peaked white tents, stacks of straw bales, and what seemed to be a heap of dismantled cannons.

“Have you been sent from the Spanish camp?” inquired a soldier in white breeches and blue coat, with white cross belts and gold buttons. Behind me, the sound of a musket being fired.

“Um, no…” said I, feebly, thinking that history had taken a step a little too close…

The soldier’s uniform was fifty years out of date for the Crimean war, and the Napoleonic war re-enactors (as they turned out to be) were preparing for a geographically inaccurate battle between French and Spanish. They weren’t particularly pleased to have me, in my hiking boots and rucksack, intrude on their fantasy, although they were impeccably polite. “Where are you from, sudarynya? England? And you’re travelling quite alone? Prikol’no.”

I didn’t say that they were intruding on my fantasy of the Crimean war, and that surely finding a whole camp of people dressed up in Napoleonic uniform in a remote valley usually inhabited only by horses was a good deal more prikol’no (funny). Anyway there was something inexpressibly charming about being addressed as sudarynya, like a lady in a story by Lermontov or Pushkin, in such unlikely surroundings.

I left them to their dreams and walked on busy with my own, hearing the whispers of the soldiers and settlers, the monks and wine-makers; the Tatars, Karaims, Khazars, Goths, Greeks, Genoese, Russians, Ukrainians… all the people who jostle so closely in the history of Crimea.

“I want simply to learn about the world and to live freely”

Alan Villiers' ship, the 'Joseph Conrad'

Alan Villiers’ ship, the ‘Joseph Conrad’

As a child my idea of an almost unbelievable real-world adventure (as opposed to battling talking beasts and wicked witches in Narnia) was encapsulated in We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, by Arthur Ransome, wherein four children find themselves far from their imaginary pirate islands in the Lake District, swept out to sea on a sailing boat in a storm. They make it over to Holland where they are met by their astonished, exasperated and ultimately proud father, who sails back with them.

I wonder if the thirteen-year-old girl who wants to sail round the world single-handed has read We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. Perhaps she would be pretty unimpressed by it, having already made the same trip herself, on her own (she was picked up by social workers in Lowestoft earlier this year. Her father apparently didn’t want to come from Holland to collect her, believing she was quite capable of sailing back on her own.)

Have children’s dreams really got so much bigger since Arthur Ransome wrote his Swallows and Amazons books in the 1930s? I had no idea before reading the news coverage over the weekend that there are a whole load of teenagers who want to or already have circumnavigated the globe alone. The last one to break the record for the youngest person to do so (seventeen and a half years old) held the record for six weeks, the current one (seventeen and just under a half) expects to hold it for eight months. This in an age where most British parents are afraid to let their children pop round the corner to the shop on their own.

On one hand I want to applaud such audacious ambition and confidence. Part of me is full of admiration, part of me is jealous (what was I doing when I was thirteen, sixteen, seventeen…? Having wild adventures, sure, but only in my head). On the other hand, I’m concerned about what on earth you do next, after something like that. Where else is there to go, when you’ve already been round the world and you’ve still got the rest of your life to get through? And why are they doing it really (the title quote notwithstanding) – to test themselves, to prove something to their parents, to break a meaningless record and be famous for five minutes?

Reading Arthur Ransome made me, for a short while, mad about sailing, although in reality I never got further than a week-long school sailing camp on a local lake. I was enchanted by the apparent freedom and self-reliance it represented; I think even then I realised that the sea and sailing were a metaphor for a way of living. I’ve long grown out of the Swallows and Amazons books, but one of my favourite books as an adult is The Mirror of the Sea. Joseph Conrad takes incidents from his maritime adventures to reflect on the discoveries we make and decisions we take about how to live with other people and with ourselves. It’s a wise, wonderful book written in old age, after a lifetime of merchant sailing and of writing. Conrad was sailing as a job, with all the responsibility and toil that represented. I wonder if these teenagers, for whom sailing is a competition and a privilege, will grow up to be as wise.

Dreaming you’re in a book

Thanks to the children from Marlborough Primary and Tytherington High School in Cheshire for all the interest and participation during my visits this week to talk about Riding Icarus and Dream Land.

You were wonderful! It was great to see so much enthusiasm for books, and how many of you want to be writers. You asked so many fantastic questions it’s hard to single out one or two, but one I really liked was “Have you ever dreamed you were a character in one of your books?”

I use ideas and images from dreams a lot in my writing, but only once have I dreamed I was one of my own book characters. I dreamed I was Masha, the heroine of Riding Icarus and of a new, yet to be published novel known so far as It’s a Sweet Word, Kamchatka.

In my dream I was about thirteen years old and I was homeless. I was wearing a horrible grubby pale pink coat that wasn’t warm at all and that I’d never have chosen to wear; I think I was being chased, and that I asked some strangers to help me – all that part is a bit vague now but what I really remember from the dream was the feeling of being cold and dirty and having no clean clothes, nowhere to go. And knowing that I was totally alone. No one cared about me; if people saw me then they quickly looked away and pretended I wasn’t there at all. That terrible feeling of being small and unwanted stuck with me long after I woke up.

I’ve put that dreamed experience into It’s a Sweet Word, Kamchatka, along with some real things that have happened to me and to people I know, particularly homeless children in Ukraine that I met through journalism and charity work. In the book, Masha doesn’t stay living on the streets for too long, but the effect of the world’s indifference stays with her for far longer – as does the amazing kindness of some strangers.

Anyone here ever dreamed you’re a character in a book?

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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