Even though it’s damp and cold outside on this winter afternoon, the first thing we do when we’re in the house is throw open all the windows and doors. It may be damp and cold outside, but after eight weeks away from home there’s a bitter chill inside. The stink of mice and old birds’ nests has slipped between the ceiling boards from the attic, down into each room; stagnant water sitting in the drains has brought something acrid into the kitchen, the laundry, the bathroom; an unseen filament of cobweb clings to my face as I lug one of the suitcases down the hallway. So we throw open all the windows and doors and I light the woodstove; crank up the fiercest, hottest of fires. A fire to purge every scrap of stale mustiness and the seeping, blackening moistness of mildew. What the place needs is a flow of fresh, warm air.
There are times when this might serve as a metaphor for the keg of ideas in my head. When my view of the world feels as if it’s stagnating, is becoming grimy under a sticky layer of dust, and in need of a good shaking up and airing out. But not today. Today, I am returning from eight weeks travelling – meeting new people and new friends, reacquainting with old friends, exploring landscapes I’ve never visited before and returning to places I thought I knew – and the opposite is true. There’s a welter of new impressions and ideas storming and tumbling and crashing about in my mind, some of which are bravely clinging to the potential of new projects, but all of which need to settle and sift, to grow a few hairs and gather a little dust, before I can do anything with them.
And, for me, this is the most important fringe benefit of travelling. After all the pleasures (and challenges) inherent in experiencing different textures of life and being exposed to new ideas and different views, everything feeds back into writing: the stories we tell and the words we use to interpret an ever-changing understanding of the world – an overheard phrase here, an observed mannerism there, a unique perspective, a response or a reaction, or maybe the absence of a reaction... a description of how afternoon light at a particular time of year in a particular environment illuminates a person’s face or the edge of a skyscraper or the leaves on a tree. All this and more.
So, now the house is fully aired and the woodstove is contentedly ticking over and it begins to feel like home again, I’m trying to re-establish the habits and the habitat which allow me to write. I’m holding my cupped hands out, encouraging some of that welter of new ideas and impressions to land without getting too bruised, so that I can nurture them and, in turn, allow them to take my words someplace new. In this manner, I’ll begin to read and elaborate on the brief notes I took while sitting on trains, planes or in anonymous hotel rooms (an overheard phrase here, an observed mannerism there), and I’ll gradually review photographs that might help make sense of my more cryptic notes or that will encourage new ideas to land. Maybe, one day, a few of them will give substance to a character or a scene or the direction of a story, and then, for me, these will have become the best souvenirs of all.