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Today, I was asked by an as yet unpublished author if there is a secret to writing, perhaps some mental trick that can promote the necessary focus. I had to smile to myself. Would that it were that easy! In truth, I’m not sure there is any one key to writing, or even that a whole bunch would be adequate, but if there is one, walking would be a candidate – in my case, at least.
“Walking!” I hear you say in a suitably incredulous tone. “What, in heavens, are you talking about?” Bear with me; and I shall present my case.
As you well know, I’ve never been much of an athlete, but I’ve always loved walking, preferably for a few hours or a day, or longer. Firstly, it’s an immensely satisfying activity at a purely physical level; secondly, there are few better ways to work out a problem, resolve a creative issue, or just gain a new perspective; thirdly, there’s the fact that, when you are walking, you notice details that would be impossible in a car; fourthly, there is that sense of being in tune with nature; and, finally, it is truly amazing what adventures can result from something as seemingly harmless as a simple stroll. Well, maybe stroll isn’t the right word for a twenty mile cross country hike, or a walking tour through Fascist Spain with a diversion to Morocco, but my underlying point is that what starts out as a straightforward walk can lead one into some complicated and dangerous situations – ideal material for a writer if one should be fortunate enough to survive; and writing stems from experience even if significantly reinterpreted. Or such is my view. We can argue about the true nature of creativity some other time.
The craziest walk I ever went on was after a party in Dublin when I decided to walk some 24 miles through the Dublin Mountains in winter on a dare. Since I hadn’t slept, wasn’t adequately clothed, and had brought neither food nor water – and it was snowing – I was damn lucky I didn’t freeze to death (I came close) but it was also one of the most intense and uplifting experiences of my life. That part of the world is stunning under normal circumstances but in the swirling snow, with the ground still not fully covered so showing texture and color, I felt I had been transported into a world of such beauty I knew I could never to describe it. I suspect I was experiencing the onset of hypothermia, and I knew if I sat down I would never get up again, but it was an experience worth risking everything for; and I was young, and there was definitely someone watching over me.
The most dangerous walk I ever went on was in Cyprus just before the Turks invaded. At the time, the Greeks were the aggressors though both sides had official forces and armed bands of irregulars up to no good. Quite why I picked this place and time for a walking holiday is a good question but I was curious and, as you know, liked to spend time with units so I’d know what I was doing when I started writing. In this case I underestimated just how far things had gone, and that trekking across the countryside at a time when both sides were feeling decidedly territorial was not smart. Suffice to say that I stumbled across a Greek farm where a bunch of unfriendly looking people were hauling up polythene wrapped weapons from a well. Since I was on foot, I surprised them completely and the question then was what we should do. Should I beat a hasty retreat? Should they kill me for having seen too much? I decided a pretense of ignorance was the best policy so strode ahead as if I had seen nothing even though several Sten guns had already been unwrapped and bade them all a cheery good morning without stopping. I can tell you I felt decidedly uncomfortable until I was out of sight because I thought there was a reasonable chance one of the assembled thugs would decide to put one of the weapons to terminal use. Feeling you have a target on your back is not a pleasant feeling. Later I was to experience the same feeling under sniper fire in Northern Ireland. Again I was lucky although a policeman nearby was not so fortunate and was shot dead by a 7.62mm round.
The walk that had the greatest personal consequences for me was the ramble along the cliffs in Wales which resulted in my finding a hanging body in a wood near a castle that had once been owned by William Randolf Hearst. That unpleasant business gave me the inspiration for Games of The Hangman and becoming a Best Selling author – and much else besides. The description in the book is pretty much what actually happened.
The stupidest thing I ever did on a walk – which also happened in Cyprus – was to sit on a snake. It was a large, dark colored snake soaking up the rays on a dark colored rock when I had exactly the same thought – only I failed to check whether the seat already occupied; and I certainly did not expect a reptile to be the current inhabitant. In Ireland, you will recall, we don’t have snakes. Reportedly, St. Patrick got rid of them all. Clearly he had not made it to Cyprus. I’m not quite sure whether the snake or I moved faster – both of us were scared out of our skulls - but fortunately we both headed in different directions. I don't think the snake was poisonous but I gave up cross-country walking in Cyprus after that.
Farewell. Write soon. I miss your wit and your company.