The question has become something of an in-joke amongst writers. But I refuse to deride it because it is a question that gets right to the nub of things. And, like a lot of simple questions, it is very difficult to answer satisfactorily. “Where do you get your ideas from?”
For myself, I have to scroll back a lot of years. Back to a terraced house in the far north of England, barely ten miles from the Scottish border. It was a house of colour and sound. A flamboyant choice for the doors and windows on the front, with sufficient paint left over for the outside toilet seat, meant it was copper rose pink. Or on late Summer evenings when the slanting rays of sun caught the kestrel on hover patrol over the waste ground at the back, it was golden chestnut brown. Or it was the stolid green of the we-are-not-amused Christmas cactus reigning over the parlour, meeting every season with a refusal to flower; or the multi-coloured fleck of the kitchen-fire peg mat. But more usually, it was grey. The grey of clouds about to break, the grey of slate rooves on the terraced rows or the slick cobble sets of the untarmacked streets.
In Winter it was the colour of ice inside the bedroom window, the dots of silver tinkling from the velvet-blue sky over the marshalling yards where fires burned brilliant by the freezing points.
It was a house which withstood the tremors, the regular charge of steaming trains pulling out of the Citadel station, running beyond the back lane, beyond our parish, beyond Penrith and Shap and on towards the south. A house which carried the triumphs of the backyard Tests where Edrich, Cowdrey and May blunted the edge of the Aussie and West Indian attacks until play was halted for the day by the blue tit, perched on the washing-line post, calling taps. It was a house of song carried on the airwaves: Sunday night hymns, Sing Something Simple and The Beatles, cribbed with the Laughing Policeman and Puff the Magic Dragon, on Saturday morning Junior Choice. It was the ham-fisted tunes on the upright piano and the three names, seven-syllable call on one note, from the back door, to come and get your tea.
It was a house where roles merged. Being carried from the bath to be dried in front of the blazing fire was to be told that the bogeyman had got you and to be offered for “a penny a smack” before a stop-your-breath towelling you always decried as too rough. And at Christmas, the Magic Makers produced stockings and presents and Coca Cola to drink with a roast chicken dinner.
It was a house from where you walked: up and down stairs, outside to play, to school and to church. Church where the language of King James and the poetry of Hymns Ancient and Modern reigned: Hills of the north rejoice/valleys and oceans sing. And school where the carpet was the gathering place for stories read aloud and where, on Friday afternoons, the tables were pushed together and covered in newspapers for the creation of impasto visions of glory. Here the seeds were sown.
And the shoots were force-fed in the house with the mantra of sticking in at school. The house that gathered, supported and confined, where deference was duly paid towards uniforms, professions and all authority with a capital A. It was a house where, beneath strictures for fair play, be good and never reach above your station, lay unarticulated love.
The house that was a home from where we could set out to climb Parnassus and steal a smouldering brand from the gods.
John Irving Clarke is a writer and poet from Cumbria. Starting his career as an English teacher, he now writes young adult fiction and delivers writing workshops in schools. As a writer, John's work was first published in 1980, and in the last 40 years he has been featured in anthologies, poetry and educational publications, and short story compilations, which have also been broadcast on BBC Radio Sheffield and Leeds. John will be delivering a workshop on word choice and developing imagery at Leeds Trinity University's annual Writers' Festival on Tuesday 17 March.
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