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Ursus Inspiration

Writing McGuffins, Touchstones & Talismans

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

A few days before my birth my father returned from an Arctic expedition. He’d been away for several months on Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole – exploring the glaciers, fjords and mountains east of Ny-Ålesund, earth’s most northerly civilian settlement at 78° 55′ N. It was night and raining hard when he got back. From Svalbard he’d flown down to Tromsø, then Luton, then caught several trains and finally a bus to Penclawdd, a village in South Wales. My mother, sitting by the window, saw him walking up the shining road, pack on his back. Once home he was amazed to see how pregnant she was, how round her belly.

Next morning he unpacked his bag and from deep inside the stuffed mix of wool and down he drew out a most amazing object, a polar bear pelvis he’d found on the glaciers around Kongsfjorden: abstract, sculptural, bleached. A strange find from another world. I trace my love of travel to parts unknown, my interest in landscapes and the stories they hold back to that pelvis.

The polar bear bone lived in the studies of our various houses throughout my childhood. It looked so pure and supernaturally white. When held it was heavier than one might expect. It enthralled me; an almost feathered line of peaks ran over the sacrum and coccyx; the broken ends of the flaring hips revealed a coral interior. The hollow eyes of the femur cups, the sinuous lines of the iliac crest, its conch shell-like fissures, cracks and apertures — all these tactile features thrilled and intrigued. The idea of my father having discovered it on a glacier, in an impossibly far-flung landscape of mythical beasts, caught my imagination. To hold it was to think of my father as a young man in that great white silence, tramping about in the realm of polar bears, and feel my horizons expand.

Thirty-five years on from that rainy Penclawdd night, I too set off for Svalbard. I was writing a book about the human outposts to be found at the wild ends of the earth, and the Arctic camps and cabins of my father’s expedition were on my list of outliers to visit, along with a multitude of mountain bothies, desert stations, forest lookouts and sea beacons — all in light of the pelvis: totem, heirloom, embodiment of the urge for going; symbol of the fact that however far one journeys in any direction there’s always more to be seen and discovered.

Many writers keep particular objects close by them to spur flights of fancy and creative connections. Roald Dahl had a whole table of marvellous curios beside his writing chair. A heavy silver ball of foil sweet wrappers jostled with a rock from Babylon, an opal from Australia and the orb of his own hip joint presented by the surgeon who’d replaced it.

On a similarly osteo-note, Robert Macfarlane writes in his recent book Underland of a whalebone owl made by the sculptor Steve Dilworth, a potent creation of Ice Age simplicity which he often carried while underground ‘to help me see in the dark’. Likewise, Sarah Perry always writes with a candle burning on the desk beside her — lit at the start of her writing day, blown out at the close.

Poet Alice Oswald has become heir to Ted Hughes’s badger pelt, possibly that of the ‘Beautiful, warm, secret beast’ he wrote of finding on the road in ‘Coming down through Somerset’. Perhaps it helped inspire Oswald’s own brock poem, ‘Body’:

hard at work 
With the living shovel of himself

The badger lives on in those lines.

The travel writer Horatio Clare, meanwhile, treasures a lump of basaltic rock from the Skeleton Coast of Namibia that is over a billion years old. Philip Hoare picks up telescopic hag stones after small hours’ swims in Southampton Sound, while Max Porter’s writing touchstone is a piece of church pew, a half-carved foliate end, unfinished, the work paused, the craftsmen having set down their tools to go to war, never to return.

Writers’ tools also take on meaning and significance: Philip Pullman recently rediscovered the green leather case containing a most important pen; a loss and return recorded on Twitter:

Lost: a green leather pen case, containing a Montblanc ballpoint pen … I’m particularly attached to the pen, because I wrote His Dark Materials with it.
7:57 p.m., 25 Sept. 2018

Today I wore a jacket I hadn’t worn for two years. In the pocket I found my green leather pen case containing the pen that wrote His Dark Materials … I knew it would come back to me.
8:10 p.m., 26 June 2019

And while Alan Bennett, who famously writes on anything he has to hand (‘I’ve no time for those — what are they called, Moleskine notebooks? No time for that at all.’), might pooh-pooh the idea of getting hung up on stationery, many writers return to a proven combination of pens, paper and ink time after time. Repetition comforts, calms and spurs. Process manifests manuscripts.

Neil Gaiman writes his first drafts with a fountain pen — of which he has an inordinate amount but favourites include the LAMY 2000, Pilot 823 and Namiki Falcon with its flexible nib — in inks usually either red or blue/green. Virginia Woolf wrote in an array of coloured inks – the manuscript for Mrs Dalloway is famously purple – but she wasn’t averse to deploying blue pencils and red crayons. Lewis Carroll was also partial to purple ink and shared a habit with Woolf of writing while standing up. John Steinbeck began his writing day by laboriously sharpening a set of particular pencils — either Eberhard Faber Mongols, the Blaisdell Calculators, or Eberhard Faber Blackwings. ‘Pencils must be round. A hexagonal pencil cuts my fingers after a long day,’ he told the The Paris Review in 1969. ‘You see I hold a pencil for about six hours every day. This may seem strange but it is true. I am really a conditioned animal with a conditioned hand.’

Alexandre Dumas wrote all his fiction on blue paper, his poetry on yellow, and his articles on pink. Lawrence Norfolk, in an essay on writers’ notebooks titled ‘A Junkyard of the Mind’ mentions that, for most of his life, Franz Kafka was steadfast to quarto-sized notebooks before trading down to octavo near the end. Conversely, Jean-Jacques Rousseau would scribble on just about anything to hand, including playing cards whilst out walking. Such jottings were later assembled to form Reveries of the Solitary Walker.

Some rubrics are more reactive than ritual. Dr Seuss kept an immense collection of around 300 hats to don if beset by writer’s block while musician Thom Yorke buys a ticket and gets on a train somewhere, anywhere…

For my part, having been to Svalbard and seen the polar bear’s habitat, I feel a deeper connection with my father’s adventures and the wild Arctic he encountered, so diminished in my lifetime. In that vast cold meringue world, where fjords were frozen iron-hard and glaciers shone impossibly blue there was very little welcome or warmth. I was just there, unbidden, like a spider in a great white bath. Suddenly Tim’s stories of how my mother posted him up home-made fruit cake in an old biscuit tin: cake, a packet of Fortnum’s Earl Grey tea, and a letter, wrapped in a copy of The Times, took on new meaning. Having been to Svalbard and, yes, seen bears, I could appreciate how such apparently mundane items as tea-bread, a paper, and tea took on a mythic, magical quality for him up there in the Arctic; because of their rarity and incongruity, absolutely, but mainly for the fact that here were objects from the outside world. Here were things from home; vivers for the journey on. Here was manifest love.

Flip the coin over. Run the film on to Penclawdd and there’s Tim unpacking the polar bear pelvis in the kitchen. Back in the land of cake and convenience, here’s hyperborean treasure embodying all the love and wonder he felt when that tin arrived off the post-plane in Ny-Ålesund. I now appreciate that the pelvis was especially powerful to me because it was a talisman of Tim himself, not just his time in the Arctic. A totem of adventure, his love for Annie and the yet-to-be me; an exemplar and invitation for me to follow and explore when I was old enough to understand what the bear bones really were. In this respect, the pelvis has perhaps foreshadowed everything I’ve done as a writer — to make sense of a world full of confusing signs and signifiers, to make and tell stories; to try to really look and truly see.
None of the totems mentioned above is truly dead, an archival relic. Instead, they’re teachers and witnesses — prisms and provocations to further acts. There’s life in the old bones yet.

Dan Richards writes about travel, culture and art. His most recent book, Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth, is published by Canongate. He has recently travelled to Finland to explore Tove Jansson’s life and work for the Economist’s 1843 Magazine


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