Friday, 9 December 2011

Are there marshes on the River Tamar?

Those who have read ‘Those Who Serve’ will know that Cass and Kate are lifelong friends. In ‘The Courtyard’ we learn that one of Kate’s sons, Guy, becomes attached to Gemma, Cass’s daughter. We next see them in ‘The Birdcage’ when they are staying on Exmoor because Guy wants to go sailing with a client who is keeping his boat at Porlock Weir and Gemma . . . Well, Gemma (who is, after all, her mother’s daughter) wants to play around with an old boy friend. The last time we heard anything about them was in ‘Echoes of the Dance’. Gemma is seen with her lover and Guy finds out. Actually in this instance Gemma has behaved very properly but Guy has lost trust. In the end he decides that the only way the marriage can be held together is to move to Canada where his father, Mark, now owns a boat building business and so the couple with their two small sons leave the UK for a new life on Prince Edward Isle off the east coast of Canada.
Porlock Weir at low tide.
Cass and Kate, now of course grandmothers, are sure that Guy and his father will find working together very difficult; both being reserved, austere and often short tempered. Equally worrying is the thought that Gemma, fun loving and highly sociable like her mother, will be lonely and deeply unhappy in such a remote location.

Then they receive the news that Gemma is returning to the UK with the boys. How are the grandmothers, friends for life, going to cope?

For many years Marcia has been aware that sooner or later she would be faced with exploring that situation and the resulting book was dubbed ‘The Grandmothers’ Book’. Having said that, Marcia had two reasons for not wanting to write the book. First: she was certain that there would not be enough in this story to make a book so it would have to be a part of something else into which it fell quite naturally – but what could that be? Second: since it took her right back to the very first book she wrote she had a feeling that if she wrote ‘The Grandmothers’ Book’ that would be the last one. Nevertheless, we have spent many hours talking this through over a number of years and Marcia has written pages and pages of notes on the subject.

There was a further difficulty. Historically I had driven Marcia around to find and then explore the areas in which her books are set. The game plan was to start on this early in 2010. However, four days before New Year’s Day the problems I had been having with my eyes went critical when the retina in my right eye became completely detached. Until then my right eye was the one I really used as the left was (and is) pretty poor. The retina was glued back in place on New Year’s Eve but it was going to be a long time before I would feel confident to drive.

Meanwhile, saying nothing to me about it at all, Marcia had come to the conclusion that the next book – possibly ‘The Grandmothers’ Book’ - would be set on a marsh beside a fairly big river. She had convinced herself that there was no such location and so was trying to put it to the back of her mind.

In those days we used to do the Times 2 crossword (the easy one) as we ate breakfast and the answer to one clue was clearly either ‘sedge’ or ‘marsh’. Marcia suggested sedge because she was still shying away from this setting near a marsh.

‘It can’t be SEDGE,’ I said, ‘I’m sure this is TAMAR so it must start with an M. It’s MARSH.’

‘Are there any marshes on the River Tamar?’ she asked, all innocence.

‘Oh yes, quite a few on the stretch above the bridges and up to Calstock.’
Salt marshes on the River Tamar
Even then she wouldn’t say anything but after lunch she proposed that we drove down to the Tamar ‘just for a jolly’. So we did. And we saw the marshes. And it was bitterly cold. And the sun shone brightly. And the tide was out. And there was this huge expanse of mud. And there were salt marshes. And it was wonderful.
And there was this huge expanse of mud with a few shelduck and a solitary gull enjoying an afternoon snack.
A curlew with its long bill.
Taken a few weeks later but it was still pretty chilly. This time the tide was in.
The next day we crossed over into Cornwall and explored the other side of the river. That was great too – although Jossie slipped into a very muddy channel which was quite interesting. On the way back Marcia suddenly stopped the car.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘Look at that house. It’s absolutely right but it will have to be on the other side of the river.’

Thus on the very first trip we found the setting for ‘The Sea Garden’ - and it was all because of two clues in that morning’s Times 2. Isn’t life odd?