Autumn was bursting with gold and browns. The amber tree leaves, glowing, lit by pure sunlight is a snapshot in my mind.
I was wearing too many layers and had to peel off my waterproof jacket and under jacket. There was no sign of rain, the sun was out and shining so warmly you could almost believe it wasn’t autumn at all.
The English countryside is a gentle thing – rolling hills, rising and falling dotted with stone walls, clusters of trees, farms houses tucked away in corners, winding roads, old churches, all of it spread out like a quilted blanket pinned to a tumbling earth … I adore it.
This walk reminds me of Sutcliff’s writings – the way she summons a Britain that is both familiar and unfamiliar, an echo of a long ago time and also a glimpse of a hidden one you can still discover.
I spent some time requesting my best friend listen to the audiobook of The Lantern Bearers. ‘It’s just like this!’ I told her … in rather more words than that.
In November, you see, I finished The Lantern Bearers again and it was just as good – I ended it with a lump in my throat and a burning in my eyes. It’s my book; I’ve read it as a girl and I’ll continue reading it until I’m an old woman and sometimes – when I wander out into the countryside, on my own or with friends, I’ll catch sight of the Britain she describes.
I didn’t precisely plagiarize ‘The Lantern Bearers’ when I wrote ‘The Hard Way’. I was inspired by it. *cough cough* I remember sitting in our minibus, notepad and pen firmly gripped in my hands. I wrote and wrote, inspiration sitting on my shoulder and zeal for words seizing my soul.
Afterwards, when the first – and only – chapter was finished, an older brother was kind enough to type it up onto our computer.
With the first chapter completed, I dusted my hands off and went on to other stories. This, unfortunately, would set a precedent for the majority of my stories. (I have folders full of tales that are called ‘Hopefully. Nearer To Now’ ‘On The Back Burner’ ‘Abandoned’ and ‘It Happens. Now’. And also random word documents littering random files on every computer that I’ve ever owned.)
The Lantern Bearers //Rosemary Sutcliff
This book. This cover. We had the ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ series when I was much younger – and I, being the devourer of all books, got my hands on this one.
I can still remember holding it – the cover was matte, the title written in golden letters. It was so beautiful.
I spent buckets of time with Aquila and his world – something about the book drew me in and kept me rereading it.
Heck, even now, if I close my eyes I can picture a scene from the book exactly. (Well, not exactly. I can’t remember every word. But dang, I can feel the loneliness, the gloom, the brown countryside with some red shrubbery – wait, was it red? OH NO! THE HUMANITY! MY MEMORY! IT HAS FAULTS!).
It is isn’t a happy book, it’s a bittersweet one. Perhaps that’s why I loved it so much – the relationships and situations that Aquila encounters seemed so much more realistic than those in other books. His reunion with his sister. His relationship with his son. His marriage to his wife isn’t a ‘love match’ – no, he doesn’t want to marry but is ordered to and makes the choice between the beautiful golden sister and little brown one. He chooses Ness – the little brown one. The plainer sister.
(As a young girl I related to this on a spiritual level. I had brown hair. I was plain. I COULD BE CHOSEN JUST LIKE NESS WAS. THERE WAS HOPE.)
(Also, she liked watching storms. If there had been a storm occurring when I was reading this book … you can be sure I would have gone out and found it. And stood there. Watching it. Getting drenched but feeling awesome.)
And yes, my pen name is inspired by this Ness. (The surname? Ironman 3 had just come out and Ben Kingsley had subconsciously sunk into my skull. I … don’t regret it?)
I could go on and on – about Minnow, about the monk and his bees, Aquila’s captivity, Sutcliff’s prose, the characterizations and so much more. But … sometimes it’s best not to hear about another’s bookish adventure but to go on it yourself.
So scoot – go on! Go pick it up and dive in.
Aquila is a complex character – yet he is someone who you can understand – you can cheer for him and yet suffer immense heartache on his behalf.
The ending is a beautiful one. There isn’t a loud ‘out with a bang’ ending but a quieter, better and more subtle one.
One that leaves you with a strange ache – wanting more but knowing that the ending is perfect as it is. And I think that those are the best endings.
You can borrow the ebook version of the Lantern Bearers here.
I’ve been rather busy recently, and the script that I had started for this episode is gathering dust as a draft. Instead of waiting for the perfect moment to have everything together – a script with interesting, thoughtful content, for example – I thought: I’m just going to wing it.
It wasn’t the worst of my ideas, but the rather incoherent enthusiasm that followed certainly proved that it wasn’t one of my best, either. I apologise in advance.
Sometimes books let you down. Sometimes you just need to ramble incoherently about them. [Found Treasure by Grace Livingston Hill. The Mark of the Horse-Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff. Villette by Charlotte Brontë]
*and by imprinted I mean ‘impress or stamp (a mark or outline) on a surface.’ Twilight, what have you done to the modern tongue?! I had to define a word and am too lazy pained to think of another title!
Good or bad, the books that you read when you’re young stay with you. Here are five of mine.
1. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgeson Burnett
I remember some of this book so vividly that it’s as if I was there, starving with Sara, waking up to the thick rug and warm fire, or attending that birthday party which went so horribly wrong.
2. Tales of Karensa by Jean Cullop
This was a retelling of the Gospel of Mark. I recall feeling a little cheated at that particular reveal. Looking back, my feelings were something akin to that little chap in John Wayne’s The Quiet Man:
A brother and sister row into this mist and visit an island and shenanigans ensue. One of the titles was called ‘Where Dolphins Race With Rainbows’ which always stuck in my mind for some reason. Also: the brother gets a scar, their hair grows and the boy I really quite liked ended up dead. But not dead dead. But sort of dead. It was a blow.
I had great feelings about the scene displayed in the front cover above. That gurl was so stoopid! She was falling into a trap and there was something to do with butterflies. Even now, the feelings of frustrated disbelief still linger.
3. The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson
I’m going to say this clearly: BEING TURNED INTO A WIND VAPOUR THINGY CLOUD SPIRIT THING IS NOT A HAPPY ENDING.
This was one of my first encounters with an unhappy ending. These things leave a mark. A MARK!
4. Rora by James Byron Huggins
I’ve already posted about this right over here. I read some of it in the car, on the way home, at night. I strained my eyes and it was a game of patience – waiting to go past street lights so that I could catch the next bit.
Reading this was a game changer. Guts! Bravery! Gore! Bittersweetness!
5. The Dolphin Ring Cycle by Rosemary Sutcliff
I once disliked Justin (The Silver Branch) but as the years have gone by, my like for him has increased. He’s brilliant in his kind and quiet way and I’ve lost my aversion to big ears. (Little Ness, why?!)
Do you know why my pen name is Ness Kingsley? Because of The Lantern Bearers. Ness – the brown sister – just clicked with me. She had brown hair, I had brown hair. She wasn’t very beautiful, I could empathise. She liked thunderstorms? I too could like thunderstorms.
She was a small, brown, brittle nut who decided to stay with Aquila and is the inspiration of my pen name. The Loch Ness Monster, on the other hand, isn’t.