So, we approach the end of summer, and for me things are beginning to calm down after months of precipitous highs and lows. Amongst the highs are the release of two picture books – Will’s Words in the US (distributed in the UK) I’ve previously mentioned, but also Yozora o Miage-yo (Look Up at the Night Sky) for Fukuinkan Shoten in Japan….. more on these titles shortly.
I’ve talked about these releases on Twitter and Facebook, but the reason I’ve not blogged about new books, or much else at all this year is due to all the other stuff, a variety of pressures, much of it (though not all) work related, as hinted in previous posts, plus latterly these have been overshadowed by the terminal illness of my father. I’ll not linger on these, other than to say that things are just beginning to settle down now.
One consequence of all this has been much rail travel between Norwich and the Midlands for one reason or another, which has seen a lot of sketchbook activity. Having been shut up in my studio with deadlines for so long, just getting out and about is nourishing, whatever the circumstances. When I travel, I tend to sketch and doodle a lot more, lately I’ve been taking a revived look at my creative direction and position in the UK.
In June, straight after completing the last of a string of challenging picture book deadlines I was off to the Worcestershire countryside for the SCBWI Picture-book Retreat. This was a fantastic weekend held at Holland House in Cropthorne, focused entirely on creating picture books, led by illustrators David Lucas and Lynne Chapman, both inspiring speakers. There’s a full report of the weekend by Helen Liston in the SCBWI journal Words and Pictures. As I’ve been so focused on illustrating books by other writers the last few years the weekend was particularly effective for just nurturing the neglected buds of storytelling in my own right. Though I’ve had my own stories published in Japan, I find myself easily disheartened with story submission in the UK, so this was just a perfect weekend.
While I was there my father was taken seriously ill, and I spent the following week further north in the Midlands, in Lichfield, travelling by bus to his hospital in Burton-upon-Trent every day. I know Lichfield well, having lived there a year when daughter and I first came back to the UK, but Burton was new to me. The return journey from the hospital meant long waits in in the town centre for the evening X12 express bus, so plenty of time to ponder the sights.
It was the time of that intense heat wave in July, the beautiful, lush green of summer contrasted against the declining health of my dad. On a couple of days I gave up waiting for the X12 and took the local village bus, which winds it’s way through the villages of Branston, Barton-under-Needwood, Yoxall, Kings Bromley, Alrewas, Fradley and Streethay. Glimpses of the narrow boats… the half timbered cottages… I thought I knew the area, but this was a revelation. A bus crawling the bumpy local back lanes of rural Staffordshire are hardly the best for sketching, but I managed to record his man and his coiffure…
Staying on my own in Lichfield I ate out every night, so had the chance to try a large range of eateries. The solitude of thoughts and my sketchbook was comforting, as was re-discovering the town.
I grew up a few miles south of Lichfield in Four Oaks, which I also got to see during this week. I left the area in 1978 and have rarely been back since, I couldn’t believe how green everything had become in the intervening years. Standing one night on the platform of my old local station, I was gripped by a sudden bond with the Midlands. It felt like everything was falling into place, every experience framed within context of the circumstances of impending loss.
At the end of the week I had to return to Norwich due to visiting family from Japan, but soon booked another train ticket to Lichfield as my dad’s condition worsened. Unfortunately I missed his passing by one day, nevertheless it seemed like I’d already shared a journey of conclusion with my father. I felt like he was with me all the time. He’ll be with me in memory forever.