Writing afloat, sheep, and some of Mr Hitchcock’s extras – Guest Post by, Ian Hutson…

My narrowboat, moored up on one of England’s sleepy canals. What better place to dedicate myself to my craft? Peace and tranquillity, a total absence of intrusive cares, woes and worries, eh?

So, there I was, tapping away at my laptop working on the my magnum opus, and suddenly there’s a fully-grown sheep licking the boat’s windows. It’s a distraction and no mistake. One moment I had my two favourite popular scientist types soaked and running for cover across a wild and lonely moorland (right into trouble, where I want them), and the next moment I’m staring down a woolly ruminant’s throat, peering deeper and wondering if sheep have tonsils.

I am not unfamiliar with sheep, m’lud, my sister and I had a couple of pet lambs (orphans) during that part of our childhoods spent on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. One of them, “Whisky”, died young but the other, “Betsy”, grew up to be a big battleaxe and bruiser and lived to a ripe and natural old age. I have no idea of the names of these three on the towpath but I am going to venture a guess on ear-tags emblazoned with “Mutton-Chop”, “Casserole” and “Dressed-As-Lamb”.

It’s a shame that one of them wasn’t a ram, then I could have suggested the name “Baa-rry”.

These three have, from my observations, three quite distinct characters. There is a ring-leader who always leads the charge, decides upon the direction of the stampede and calls a halt that the other two always obey. There is a nervous one (probably the farmer’s favourite for quiet nights in by the fire with a DVD and a bottle of Sparkling Chateau Sheep Dip), and there is one that goes with the flow but actually only cares about eating.

My boat has blue-reflective, one-way glass in the windows and portholes, and the ring-leader is most intrigued, upset and possibly challenged by her own reflection in them. I fear that a charge and a head-butt is always only a whim a way (sings a chorus of Wimoweh to calm himself, and gives thanks that the lions on this section of canal apparently sleep tonight). Yesterday though, I saw a new, “passive-aggressive” intimidation tactic emerge from the ring-leader – licking the windows. You haven’t known the true and full extent of pastoral terror until you’ve been stood in your galley, nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball with a hundred kilos of scrag-end mutton trying to lick its way to you through four millimetres of float glass.

I explained that I am vegan, and thus no threat, but to no avail, the licking attacks continued.

I wrote a thousand words more yesterday, but it was all edgy, insecure stuff. Just as I released elemental forces on my two fleeing professors I was then distracted again, and this time by a cliché. There is a squirrel living fast and loose in the hedgerow alongside my boat. He’s a grey, sadly, not an indigenous red, but he’s cute for all that. I know that they are just rats with fluffy tails, but they are very amusing to watch. Ooh – squirrel! Shiny… tee-hee.

No squirrel pictures, he’s too fast for me (and I suspect that he knows it, revels in it and delights in my “wasted frame” count rising).

My professors were lost entirely during the afternoon, after three sheep and a squirrel who could give a hoot about their fate? Not I. I put them aside for another day and flung myself instead into outer space, doing my best to concentrate on the trials and tribulations of relativity and time-dilation upon the human generations. The change of work from magnum opus to magnum nextus after that worked well, and before dusk I had some several hundred colonists lost too, lost as they say, in time and space and meaning. The crux of the matter, the point of it all, the pivotal moment of the plot was just forming in my addled mind… when dusk fell and the spirit of Hitchcock descended about me. Once again my bony, coal-dust dipped digits slowed and then paused over the keyboard…

Thousands and thousands of – I think – starlings inhabit this area, and at dusk they have certain rituals that they follow. While I, at the end of day, simply change into a velvet Rupert Bear onesie, boil up a gallon of whisky-reinforced cocoa and wrestle with a packet of nutritious Gingernut biscuits, these starlings hereabouts gather and perform a vast waltz, rolling from horizon to horizon.

It is the age-old cry of every aspiring videographer that he “didn’t capture the best moments” but tis true, the action in the video here is a mere watery taste of ten-thousand starlings swooping en mass about the sky, swirling like smoke and ochre. My video camera is bright orange, and I suspect that they can see it, and become shy and stumble-footed. Stumble-winged? Whatever the term, far and away the best performances so far have been when I have been sans camera or sans opportunity.

To be among such a spectacle – with all notions of writing suspended, naturally – is a little bit worrying. Not least so because, among ten-thousand starlings, at any given moment there will be one-thousand or more of them pooping. My trusty cloth cap can only cope with just so much before it looks like a poorly-iced bun sitting on a joke wig sitting on my head. If you want to know what it feels like to be a statue in Trafalgar Square, stand under starlings.

Having them swoop so low over the boat adds a visceral and defensive edge to memories of Mr Hitchcock’s classic, The Birds. A more modern parallel might be with some scenes from David Twohy’s film Pitch Black (and I have been told that Mr Vin Diesel bears more than a passing resemblance to me, and not only in matters of physique). Some evenings I don’t know whether to watch or to run inside and block up the chimney flue. What I am trying to say is that I risked a pecking and a pooping to bring you this footage, I do hope that you appreciate it.

So, did I get my quota of writing completed? Yes I did – but only just. It is not so calm and peaceful as one might imagine on England’s canals, just that the distractions are more natural, and more fun, than those of a town or city. Today, whatever the sheep or the starlings do – or even the clouds or the cormorants or the grebes or the squirrels – I MUST attend to my two poor professors (before they die of exposure out on the moor) and I MUST find a home and a renewed raison d’être for my displaced colonials, drifting unwanted and unloved out in the depths of space.

A writer has responsibilities!

Ian Hutson

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24 thoughts on “Writing afloat, sheep, and some of Mr Hitchcock’s extras – Guest Post by, Ian Hutson…

  1. Don’t trust the sheep. I know I’m always warning against the all too well known atrocities of Geese, but Sheep Bite. I’m just saying – there is a phrase sheep biter… although, to be honest, I’m not sure if that refers to people biting sheep or sheep biting people. In any case. I think you were wise to stay on your side of the glass.
    Honestly, the wildlife (and domestic ruminant) problems you face are outrageous. A stern letter to Her Majesty’s agents would not be out of order.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It does seem to be rather excessive, a robin, two bluebirds and a small but perfectly formed rabbit would have sufficed, there really was no need for the authorities to lay on all of this palaver!

      The sheep are, I can confirm, as you say intimidating creatures, heavy, strong and belligerent. I also think that they may not be the brightest little creatures on the planet, and combined with their “eat it or head-butt it” attitude that can be a problem – reasoning with them is out of the question. I may have to set the geese on them if they step out of line again.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank’ee sir, I am glad that you enjoyed this. Each day is, generally, a whole new adventure. If it’s not my own explorations then it’s other boaters’, and if not them, well – Father Nature lays on a floor show! At least the sheep aren’t cows, I really, really don’t like cows (cows at anything other than a distance and over a stout fence or hedgerow, that is – they’re fine as part of the scenery, just not close-up)!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. With all that lively action going on, I’m surprised you got anything written on your WIP. I would have been taking notes for another story. LOL But I’m glad you did meet your quota.

    Btw, loved the candelabra in the boat. Being on a longboat in England has been one of my dreams. But to get work done while on it…hmmm…I’ll have to rethink that idea. Maybe a cabin in the Rocky Mountains here in the U.S. would be a better idea for me. No sheep. I love sheep. (Sorry, just rambling LOL)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hmm – seriously, a cabin somewhere remote, in the mountains sounds wonderful (provided that you have been able to make preparations)!

      The sheep – and possibly the starlings – will all feature in a book that I am working on of my boat life for the past two years. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, I have learned a lot – all of the things that I thought I would have to worry about, I don’t, the fun comes from entirely unexpected quarters! The seasons here have certainly added to the experience.

      You’ve got me dreaming now about a cabin somewhere remote… maybe… in a few years… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Scottie, Audrey, yep, it’s a technique for forming a new hedgerow. Let the trees grow just enough, then lay them over and greenery begins to grow over the framework. Most of the trees are also hanging on by a thread too, so they will live, albeit a much-changed life. The local canal volunteer group do the work. Mr Nature’s resilient, he’ll cope, somehow, with all of that chopping about. I hope. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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