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Mini-break

This essay on women writers’ relationship to the countryside stems from my own longing for a proper holiday. It appeared in Island 131 (January 2013).

Just one day out of life
It would be, it would be so nice.

– Madonna, ‘Holiday’

There are three kinds of birdsong heard at dawn. The wholesome chirrups that drift luxuriously into your consciousness on the first morning of a longed-for country getaway. The cheeky cheeps that hail your superior partying credentials as you stumble home after a booze-sodden, dance floor-footsore monster of a night out.

And then there are the cruel trills that taunt you at the end of yet another bleary all-nighter at your computer, as you wrestle with words that stubbornly refuse to form themselves into a column, a feature article, a book chapter, a novel.

I hear way too much of the third kind of birdsong, and not enough of the first two.

There’s a perception that freelance writers are lazy bums who sit on the couch in their pyjamas watching daytime television, munching chips and wasting time on social media in between bashing out a story here and there. Okay, I am wearing pyjamas right now. But for me, writing is lonely and stressful, suffused with a constant fear of not working hard enough.

Since my livelihood depends on my ability to generate a constant stream of employment, I take on too many projects and feel guilty when I spend time away from my desk. Days blur drearily into nights, weekdays into weekends. My editor’s cheery emails (“Hope you had a nice weekend!”) fill me with rage. I can feel myself growing increasingly tired, sick and overwhelmed, like a clockwork toy winding down. This makes me panic, because how will I get all my work done unless I can keep working?

I haven’t had a proper holiday in years – the sort where you drop everything for a week or two and go away somewhere nice. Indeed, I get maniacally resentful of friends whose schedules and finances permit this kind of obscene luxury. When I travel, my work comes with me: on conferences and festivals, on research trips and writers’ retreats. It is pitiful that I see such trips as holidays when they all still involve work.

Enter the mini-break – a sanity-saving weekend jaunt with friends to a country house or a beach house. I go on perhaps two or three mini-breaks a year. Long enough to relax, yet short enough for me to justify going away in the first place, they are verdant, tranquil peaks in my everyday topography of stress and despair. Mini-breaks access powerful feelings we can sometimes lose amid the banal stress of everyday life. Here are three that work for me.

Wonder

Years before I learned the term ‘mini-break’ from Helen Fielding’s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary I called them, more prosaically, ‘weekends away’. As a child I spent many of them in Forrest, a small town in Victoria’s Otway Ranges hinterland, about half an hour’s drive inland from the seaside resort of Apollo Bay. I looked forward to these trips immensely, since I’d been brought up on a literary diet of fresh air and green pastures, quaint villages and quirky wildlife. And it’s intriguing, looking back now, to realise so many of the books that moulded my relationship to the landscape were by women.

May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie books sketched an Australian dreamscape of eucalypts and banksias, and an undersea wonderland of coral and pearl, while Ida Rentoul Outhwaite’s gorgeous illustrations convinced me that fairies lurked in every blossom. Joyce Lankester Brisley’s jolly Milly-Molly-Mandy tales, all mushrooming expeditions and jammy scones, made country life seem luxuriously self-sufficient. Then, of course, there was Enid Blyton.

Like me, Blyton was a suburban girl; she grew up in Beckenham, the southeast London suburb also immortalised in Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia. But she was always fascinated with the country, and spent her adult life in Buckinghamshire. Her well-known series aside, she published prolifically on the subject of nature. Her Nature Readers (1945-55) ran to 36 volumes; other whimsical collections include Enid Blyton’s Nature Lessons (1929), The Children’s Garden (1935), Friends of the Countryside (1939), Animals at Home (1950) and Nature Tales (1952).

In Forrest we often stayed at my cousins’ house. As in many holiday homes, the books and magazines left there were unintentional archives of decades-old popular culture, and I always loved to pore over one particular volume, a 1950 hardback edition of Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book (1944) which must have once belonged to my aunt or uncle. It had long since lost its dust jacket; the fabric cover was a soft grey-green with faded gilt titles.

In a series of stories entitled ‘Nature Walks’, Blyton shows eager young readers the sights and sounds that can be observed at different times of the year. Rich with black-and-white illustrations, the stories explain how plants propagate, how woodland creatures feed and nest, and how to identify a bird or animal from its footprints. There’s a field guide to English flora and birdlife (“Do You Know This Tree?”) and “Some Interesting Things to Do”, including pressing flowers, making an aquarium and making toys out of pine cones.

I especially loved Blyton’s cosy poems and stories fancifully explaining natural phenomena. Pixies use the green outer shells of hazelnuts as their autumn coats; blackbirds’ beaks turn bright orange-yellow in spring because Mother Nature dips them in gold – compensation for their drab plumage. More than a quarter-century later, I still think of Blyton whenever I see a golden-beaked blackbird, or a male sparrow with his black bib.

“Let’s pick blackberries—it’s such fun!” Blyton writes. “I know where the best bushes are—/Come on—get your baskets, and off we’ll run/Away down the lane; it’s not far!” Inspired, I’d spend hours wandering in paddocks, picking blackberries, boysenberries, banana-passionfruit and wildflowers, and watching urgently for birds and animals.

Even back then, when the biggest work-related stress in my life was my inability to grasp long division (which I still don’t understand to this day), I sensed that my experiences in the country were only ever temporary bucolic fantasies, after which I’d return to my dull suburban life. But I cherish the way that book taught me to immerse myself in the natural world with a sense of wonder.

In 2004, on council orders, my parents demolished our holiday house, which had grown so derelict even local hobos wouldn’t squat in it. Inside, my mother found a treasure from my childhood: my Botanical Notebook – contains secrets enough to astound Einstein. In my “Botanist Profile”, I called myself “Prof. M. Campbell” (quite an achievement for someone aged “11 and three-quarters”), and boasted an IQ of 124007. My speciality? “Native Flora”. My standard of work? “Excellent”.

Recorded in the book is a “Field Expedition” I made to the local tip at 9:51am on June 21, 1989. “I shall study the plant growth in the adjacent bushland to see if the varied soil and mineral diet has affected their usual pattern of growth,” I wrote.

On the title page I had declared, “This notebook is for scientific purposes only. No silly romanticism is allowed.” But wasn’t it a distinctly Romantic wonder that filled me as I sketched birds “scavenging from the organic scraps in the pit”? Romantic poets gloried in the aesthetic of the sublime: a dizzying awe that comes from recognising one’s own insignificance in the face of nature’s stolid, infinite beauty.

Now, I realise it’s no coincidence that Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book also includes poems by William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and John Keats, among others. You don’t need to gaze at a mighty peak or vast, spreading valley for nature to fill you with a sense of wonder; it’s also in the tiny details and annual rhythms. But at the same time, it’s no coincidence that so many Romantic writers sought the sublime on holiday in Europe and the Near East. Getting away from it all, even for a little while, lets you come back feeling mentally refreshed.

Serenity

“How’s the serenity?” The Castle’s patriarch Darryl Kerrigan exults at his lakeside holiday house at Bonnie Doon… as he prepares to shred that serenity with a spot of power boating. Because “if there’s anything Dad liked more than serenity,” his son Dale observes, “it was a big two-stroke engine on full throttle!”

The same irony suffuses Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd, the first of Hardy’s works to be set in his “partly real, partly dream-country” of Wessex. Hardy pilfered his title from a line in Thomas Gray’s celebrated 1751 poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which Gray had composed in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire – coincidentally, only about 12km from Enid Blyton’s adoptive hometown of Beaconsfield. But in Hardy’s novel, the countryside is no sedate, humble social periphery; rather, it’s a notorious scene of love, despair, violence and death among passionate people.

Far from the Madding Crowd is the story of Bathsheba Everdene, a gorgeous young woman who runs her own country estate. The novel recounts Bathsheba’s poor romantic choices and juggling of three suitors. Lonely, repressed local gentleman William Boldwood becomes obsessed with Bathsheba after she jokingly sends him a valentine. Meanwhile, she lusts after glamorous soldier Sergeant Frank Troy, whose heart really belongs to Bathsheba’s former servant Fanny. But her best match is her estate manager and sensible old friend, Gabriel Oak.

Hardy’s novel has proven influential for women writers. Suzanne Collins, author of the 2008 young-adult blockbuster The Hunger Games, named her own rural protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, in tribute to Hardy’s plucky heroine. And it blew my mind when I realised that the wisecracking Detective Sergeant Troy in Caroline Graham’s 1987 crime novel The Killings at Badger’s Drift – later adapted as the first of TV’s Midsomer Murders – is named for Hardy’s character.

The homicide-happy fictional county of Midsomer presents the same kind of idealised rural psychogeography as Hardy’s Wessex. Named after a medieval kingdom extinguished after the Norman Conquest, and originally based on Hardy’s beloved home county of Dorset, Wessex’s eventual spread over much of southwest England marks it as a cartography of feeling, not merely of land – a pastoral space of the imagination.

When Posy Simmonds adapted Hardy’s saga in her 2007 graphic novel Tamara Drewe, she also sets the action somewhere hazily fictional – although the 2010 film adaptation, directed by Stephen Frears and scripted by Moira Buffini, more pointedly locates the village of Ewedown in Dorset. Like Far from the Madding Crowd, Tamara Drewe was originally serialised; it ran in The Guardian between 2005 and 2007. In Simmonds’ modern retelling, Tamara’s three romantic prospects are middle-aged detective novelist Nicholas Hardiman, sullen rock drummer Ben Sergeant, and good-hearted local handyman Andy Cobb.

And Tamara is a journalist; having transformed her career by getting a nose job, she’s one of those guilelessly appalling solipsists, penning a weekly column about herself called “Away From It All”. She’s heading to her mum’s country house to write a memoir, but she explains, “I’d like to make it in fiction before I’m 35… Maybe do 2 or 3 novels… maybe then do a children’s book.”

This certainly seems an idyllic place to write. The softness of Simmonds’ pencil shading suggests diffuse country light; her pastel watercolours subtly shift palettes to reflect the changing seasons. She sketches hillside panoramas of fields and hedgerows in patchworks of green, studded with sheep and cows, and quaint farmhouses nestling among trees, their windows cheerily lamplit at twilight. This isn’t the sublime, but the picturesque – the Romantic aesthetic ideal that pleases the eye because it’s as beautifully composed as a landscape painting.

Frears’ film adaptation also captures the mellow light, the expansive vistas and gentle rhythms of country life. When I first saw the film, having not yet read the graphic novel, I found it dull and stodgy; but on a recent re-viewing I realised I’d missed its mischievous lightness of touch.

Cloaked in picturesque gentility, Simmonds’ wit is savage. From 2002-4 she penned a regular comic called Literary Life for The Guardian’s Saturday ‘Review’ section: a wonderfully cynical look at the behaviour of authors, publishers, agents and readers. In Tamara Drewe, Simmonds’ satirical sights are set on the cherished literary institution of the country writers’ retreat, far from the madding crowd.

Nick’s loyal, capable but homely wife Beth not only manages his literary career but also runs a writers’ retreat at Stonefield, their country property. The retreat is a mecca for London luvvies; aspiring crime writers flock to Stonefield to be near Nick – “like cups round a teapot,” in the acid words of Glen Larson, an American academic staying there on sabbatical.

The modern writers’ retreat originates in the artists’ colonies popularised in the 19th century, which were in turn modelled on religious retreats. Perhaps the oldest writers’ retreat in the contemporary sense is Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, which since 1926 has hosted some of the world’s most distinguished writers. Varuna, the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains, is modelled on the more intimate retreat at Hawthornden Castle, Scotland, which houses five writers at a time.

Writers’ retreats are popularly viewed as secular monasteries. They are about finding a time and place to cultivate quietness of the mind, and because of their Romantic heritage, that’s intrinsically linked to being close to nature. We fancy that inspiration strikes while we’re on a brisk walk, or gazing across a meadow, or at a sunset.

Glen loves Stonefield’s seclusion; the Hardimans’ marital woes only concern Glen insofar as they threaten the luxuriously restful space he has come to enjoy (and which is entirely Beth’s assiduous, self-effacing creation). But for me, the most serene mini-break offers freedom from time, not freedom of space. I identified deeply with Simmonds’ shrewd double-page spread showing Tamara and Nick separately, frantically, at work.

On the left page, Tamara procrastinates from writing her column in pleasant ways: she visits the local pub, walks the dog, discusses potential plants for her garden, and (my favourite) distractedly reads the newspapers she plans to crumple up to light a fire. Right now I’m feeling the same pressure to finish this essay that’s crushing Tamara, half an hour to deadline, as she feverishly types her column.

Meanwhile on the right page, Nicholas sits in his writing shed, staring across a cow paddock. In a beautifully evocative – and, to me, utterly familiar – series of frames, the light from his window gradually dims. A jetsam of sandwiches, wine glasses, and tea and coffee paraphernalia ebbs and flows on his desk. Beth pops in to relay a stressful series of phone and email messages. Finally, it’s completely black outside. Nicholas slumps. “Oh God…” he thinks. Then he goes back to writing, because what else can he do?

Tamara Drewe is also about the dissonances and disparities between townie transplants Tamara, Nick and Beth and actual rural residents. “I’ve always thought of the landscape as being arranged for my personal pleasure,” says Beth: “a sort of living calendar, a nice view from every room.” But this is a luxury only a temporary perspective can afford. Simmonds ruptures Beth’s bucolic bliss with a gruesomely ironic ending for her pompous husband: he’s trampled to death by a herd of madding cows.

Even as a kid, strutting down country lanes in my gumboots, I felt guilty that locals could instantly rat me out as an interloper. The Romantics saw them as innocent Arcadians – the rustic shepherd stumbling across ruins, or in Gray’s wistful words, the “ploughman [who] homeward plods his weary way”.

But Andy Cobb, who grew up in Ewedown, has found himself dispossessed by urban weekend warriors. When he was a teenager, his farmer father went broke and had to sell the Cobb family property to Tamara’s family; then his own graphic design business failed, so he has to work for Beth as Stonefield’s resident groundskeeper. Now Tamara has hired him to renovate her house – that is, the house where Andy was born.

Despite this series of humiliations, Andy is a good-humoured, sensible guy, and ultimately Tamara’s best match. But he can’t view the land with the urban characters’ wide-eyed wonder. When Tamara’s rock-star boyfriend Ben comes to buy a Christmas goose from Andy, Ben’s disgusted to find Andy actually killing and plucking geese.

“Got to be done… you can’t be sentimental,” Andy says.
“You’re a sick f—, Andy!” Ben retorts.

And when Beth asks Andy which country smells make him nostalgic (“Not woodsmoke? Or cows’ breath?”), he finally rhapsodises, “I suppose GLUE does… yeah… sniffing glue down by the war memorial when I was twelve.”

Ewedown’s local kids don’t have the luxury of going on mini-breaks anywhere. They’re bored out of their minds, entertaining themselves by egging passing cars. Two teenagers, Jody and Casey, hang out in the disused bus shelter, reading gossip magazines. In the film, they also get busted trying to sneak into a local music festival full of city slickers.

It’s the highlight of their young lives when Jody’s idol Ben comes to stay with Tamara, and they inadvertently set a disastrous set of misunderstandings in motion when they break into Tamara’s house while she’s in London and send a sexy Valentine’s Day email from her computer to Ben, Nicholas and Andy.

When Tamara and Ben break up, Jody’s mum notices her brooding, and assumes (correctly) it’s over a boy. “You behave, Jody… you know what can happen.”
What can happen?” Jody flings back. “What can ever, ever happen in this place?”

Conviviality

The granddaddy of writers’ retreats took place in June 1816. Percy and Mary Shelley went on a mini-break to visit their friend Lord Byron, who was summering with his personal physician John Polidori at the Villa Diodati, a Swiss lakeside mansion. But it was a crappy summer for a holiday. The weather was unusually cold, and Mary Shelley complained of the “incessant rain”. The previous year, Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies had erupted (it’s still one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded history), disastrously altering climates worldwide. 1816 became retrospectively known as the Year Without a Summer.

So, rather than enjoying pleasant lakeside rambles, the writers sat indoors around a fire and shared fantastical horror tales of electrical reanimation and the Eastern European undead. This trip was the germ of not one but two literary classics: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; and The Vampyre by Polidori, based on a fragment by Byron.

It’s the companionship and solidarity of my fellow writers that I find most convivial in my own writerly retreats. Often I keenly feel my lack of a workplace and colleagues. I mean, I have them, but I work alone, from home, in the kind of monkish silence usually to be found in more traditional spiritual retreats.

What I seek from a writers’ retreat is the company of people who are dedicated to thinking and writing in ways that are related, yet different, to my own. People who slide gracefully around each other’s rhythms of work and spaces of thought, yet who are also fun and companionable in non-professional ways.

Of course, many people think of mini-breaks as erotic escapes – ‘dirty weekends’ out of town with a lover. I have never enjoyed such a mini-break, and fear I never shall. Perhaps I’m doomed to become one of those literary spinsters, like Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti or, famously, Jane Austen.

Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice is set in the fictional small town of Meryton, Hertfordshire, yet its concerns are personal rather than pastoral. When it comes to its characters’ relationship with the countryside, sense triumphs over sensibility; the closest Elizabeth Bennet comes to sublime rapture is in her first glimpse of Pemberley House, the Darcy family seat:

“She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. […] and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”

I’ve always loved this crass little moment of Lizzy’s, this secret acknowledgment that the trappings of social prestige impress her more easily than she lets on. Having prejudged Mr Darcy himself, she falls for his house.

Pride and Prejudice inspired Bridget Jones’s Diary, the 1996 novel by Helen Fielding, which was adapted to film in 2001. When she begins her momentous diary, London “singleton” Bridget is working in PR for a publishing house and falls into an unsatisfying relationship with her roguish boss, Daniel Cleaver – Fielding’s analogue of Pride and Prejudice’s villain, Mr Wickham.

Like Lizzy yearning to be mistress of Pemberley, Bridget hungers for a rural mini-break with Daniel, browsing delectably through a brochure: “Pride of Britain: Leading Country House Hotels of the British Isles”.

“Why is it that men have not yet learnt to fantasize about holidays, choose them from brochures and plan and fantasize about them in the way that they (or some of them) have learnt to cook or sew?” she ponders.

Perhaps Bridget answers her own question in the film, as she exultantly heads off with Daniel on what she believes will be a foundational excursion in their history together: “This can’t be just shagging. A mini-break means true love.”

The film’s mini-break scenes were filmed at Stoke Park in Buckinghamshire. Felicitously, it’s the neighbouring estate to the village of Stoke Poges, where Thomas Gray once brooded tastefully over mortality. But Bridget and Daniel are no Romantics.

“Season of mist, and mellow fruitlessness!” hoots Bridget heartily (and inaccurately; the opening line of the 1819 poem To Autumn is “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”) as she and Daniel row inelegantly on the lake.

“Oh, fuck me, I love Keats,” replies Daniel, before launching into a dirty limerick, ramming Bridget’s rowboat and falling into the water.

Their love is not to be. The haughty yet touchingly sweet Mark Darcy will claim Bridget’s heart… but only after Bridget’s loyal gaggle of London friends show up like white knights to sweep her off on a mini-break to Paris.

Mini-breaks with friends are my favourite kind. There are power ballads on the car stereo on our trips there and back; delicious meals and endless bottles of wine consumed; marathon DVD-watching sessions; hilarious, corny parlour games. While Bridget frets about what to pack and how to behave in order to most seductively cement her uncertain relationship with Daniel, I know I can relax completely in the presence of people who accept me at my daggiest. However, when I’m chasing a deadline, I hanker for an upcoming weekender with all Bridget’s longing.

When I get there, sometimes I never leave the house where we’re staying. It’s enough simply to know I am not at my desk. I gaze out across an estuary, where the afternoon sun twinkles on water. I watch a breeze ruffle long grass like a sleeping child’s hair. I fall asleep at night to the sound of the ocean rather than the noise of passing traffic. I feel wonder. I am serene. I am convivial.

One morning on my last mini-break, to a friend’s beach house in South Gippsland, I awoke earlier than the others. A steaming cup of tea in hand, I stood quietly on the back deck, closed my eyes, and listened to birdsong. At last, I wasn’t working.