When I was a young teenager, we moved to an oval-shaped estate, a ring of small semi-detached houses, just above the heart of the town. The rooms were small, I shared a bedroom with my brother, but there was open land and wide skies not too far away.
To get to it, I’d step out through the back door, walk through the square front garden, take the narrow street from the estate, turn left and left again into my grandparents’ street, then turn right and follow the steep pathway by the allotments, leave that and step onto the broad playing fields, where my step would quicken as I moved higher, over the slopes of shrubs and wilder grasses, heading for our little wilderness at the very top. Skylarks rose singing into the sky as I advanced. The journey was footloose, liberating, a trip that seemed to take me into immensity, but sometimes old tales, rumours, nightmares came to haunt me – of wild dogs, savage tramps, of children lost in ancient pit shafts just below the turf – and I must glance back to reassure myself – yes, home and safety really weren’t too far away.
Up here was a place of disused coal mines, old mineral tracks, ponds and copses, and of that final slope where I’d lie on the cindery earth and simply stare up through the tips of breeze-blown grasses, and feel that my journey might continue, that I might quite easily be lifted into the astonishing endless blue.
Then I’d sit up and look back to where I’d come from, and look at what lay all around me and beyond me, the places that I’d come to write about in the coming years; a world made up of the real and the fictional, the true and the false, fact and dream; a world that would become the geography of my imagination.
What did I see? And what do I see now as I look back through that boy’s eyes?
The town below, Felling on Tyne, a cluttered place centred on its square. The council estate in which I’d grown up. The church, St Patrick’s, where I served on the altar, where my Geordie-inflected Latin helped the miracle of the Mass to occur. My first school, St John the Baptist, where Mrs Fagan’s words on a blackboard created visions in the mind. Our little local library where I fell in love with books. The high street with my Uncle Amos’ printing shop where I fell in love with print. The graveyard where my sister was buried, where my father and mother would come to be buried. A town with ancient tunnels deep below, tunnels that still held the bodies of those who died in pit explosions not so long ago. A town with the sound of larks and factory sirens in it, the calling of children in parks and gardens, the harsh and tender and beautiful Northern voice in it. A little insignificant town in a far-flung corner of the north, the kind of place that some said was uncultured, that could not be written about in a way that would reach the wider world. A place at the edge of civilisation. Ha! And beyond it: the city, Newcastle with its steeples and bridges, on the opposite bank; the River Tyne snaking its way past the shipyards with their half-built ships; the factories and spreading council estates; the North Sea dark on the horizon. A complex landscape, already riddled with memories and dreams, spreading out below me. And further still: the open spaces of Northumberland, its streams and forests and fells: in the far north, the dark bulges of the Cheviots in a sunlit haze against the massive sky. And when I turned and looked westward: the moors of County Durham, mining country, pithead after pithead standing upon the undulating earth, then the distant Pennines. And south: Wearside, Teesside, and beyond this, yet more moorland, yet more space.
It was, and is, a little, local, ordinary place with endless spaces all around. So it is like us, we human beings. We too are little, local, ordinary, but we’re pursued by dreams and memory, filled with mystery, haunted by a sense of the beyond.
I first wrote about the landscape properly in the story collection, Counting Stars. The Felling in that book, which tells of a boy like me in a family like mine, is a mixture of the imaginary and the real. True streets coincide with streets that I invented. ‘Real’ characters meet up with and talk to those that I made up. Fictions are constructed around actual events, and sometimes even I’m not sure now what’s really ‘true’. Does it matter? Isn’t that the way all memory works? It’s certainly the way all fiction works.
Felling, or a fictionalised version of it, appears in so many of my later tales. In The Colour of the Sun a boy named Davie takes the journey that I described at the beginning of this piece. Like me, he wanders through his real place and through his own mind. I often feel that the page on which I write becomes the place in which I and my characters live and move. The page itself becomes a landscape, a place of possibility, a place of exploration and discovery. Words are like footsteps, one then another, one then another leading us further into the story’s journey.
As I came to include more of the landscapes of the north into my work, I felt as if I’d come into an undiscovered land. My purpose was to explore it, to invent it, to recreate it, to show that any kind of tale could take place in it. Yes, there was a sense of purpose to it all. But I was, and am, also kind of helpless. This place is in me, in my blood and bones and heart and soul. It’s almost as if it has been given to me, passed on to me, and I have a weird responsibility to it. And I often feel that I simply have to submit to that fact. This is where my imagination has worked best, where it finds its limits and, paradoxically, its freedoms. At the heart of me is a belief that my writing of this place protects it, sustains it, keeps it all alive. Crazy? Probably. So what? And maybe that really is what all writing is for, what all art is for. We write, sing, dance against the forces of destruction that surround us all. Each word, each paragraph, each page is an act against the pessimists, the dull destroyers. Our task is to make something beautiful and alive, to create and to keep on creating.
That’s why this landscape was the place to set my version of the Orpheus myth, A Song for Ella Grey. Orpheus comes to Bamburgh Beach. Of course he does. His Eurydice is an ordinary Tyneside lass. Of course she is. The entrance to the Underworld is just beside the River Tyne. Of course it is. In the sunlit beauty of Northumberland, Orpheus sings songs that draw the birds down from the sky and slow the rivers in their flow. He loses Ella to an adder bite in the Bamburgh dunes. He almost sings her back to life again in the Hades beneath Newcastle town. He fails, as he always does. But he’ll sing again and again, and maybe one time he’ll get it right. Until then, he’ll keep on living through version after version of his brand-new ancient tale, playing his music, singing his songs, keeping our beautiful, strange, miraculous and troubled world alive.
In the end, for me, the landscapes of northeastern England are limitless. I do write of other places, use other landscapes. Some of them, such as the landscape of The Boy Who Climbed Into the Moon, seem totally invented. But I keep on returning to my source, I keep on exploring and inventing the landscape of my home.
Works cited – author David Almond
Annie Lumsden, The Girl from the Sea (illus. Beatrice Alemagna) (2020) London:, Walker Books.
A Song for Ella Grey (illus. Karen Radford) (2014) London: Hodder Children’s Books.
Counting Stars (2000) London: Hodder Children’s Books.
Skellig (1998) London: Hodder Children’s Books).
The Boy Who Climbed Into the Moon (illus. Polly Dunbar) (2010) London: Walker Books.
The Dam (illus. Levi Pinfold) (2019) London: Walker Books.
The Colour of the Sun (2018) London: Hodder Children’s Books.
The Savage (illus. David McKean) (2008) London: Walker Books.
The Tightrope Walkers (2014) London: Penguin Books.
David Almond is the author of Skellig, The Savage, The Tightrope Walkers, A Song for Ella Grey, The Dam, Annie Lumsden, Girl from the Sea, and many other novels, stories, picture books, songs, opera librettos and plays. His work is translated into 40 languages, and is widely adapted for stage and screen. His major awards include the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the Carnegie Medal, the Eleanor Farjeon Award, the Michael L. Printz Award (USA), Le Prix Sorcières (France) and The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. He lives in Bath and Newcastle upon Tyne, the city of his birth. His new novel, Brand New Boy, will be published in November.