I wanted to write
I walked on air, and then, for long weary months through fog, snowstorms and mud.
There is a children's book called The Bear Hunt. Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it
Every budding author should read The Bear Hunt. Because for many of us, the start is like the bear hunt... got to go through it. Five starts and I was heartily sick of being a writer. Never could I get further than the Russian chapter. I got completely bogged down in Russia. Of course, I knew my history, Russia did that.
My book was about Hong Kong - I'd travelled there on the Trans-Siberian railway and I needed a Russian chapter
I got off the track altogether when I started to read about magical shaman who wore deer antlers and, at a whim, shapeshifted to travel the sky like geese or ride on airborne goats and rams. When their bums got sore from all that flock-flying, they slid along rainbows to visit the spirit world and grazed magic mushrooms.
Maybe I was easily diverted by spirited Russia, but Russia can serve an enormous range of distraction; the largest military battle in history, one of the largest museums in the world, the deepest lake on earth and of course the longest railway line. It is impossible to pick up any book on Russia and not be sidetracked. Siberian brown bears, man-eating wolves and reindeer migrations. See? Quite impossible and we haven't even started on the Tsars, Tolstoy or Laika, the first dog in space. Notice too the Reds have not yet had a mention.
I put it all into my back-pack
I was still working on the chapter when Dale and I went to Europe in late 2013. I spun her interminable tales of Russia. I moved from mystics to statistics about the Trans-Siberian, from Imperial Russia to revolution. A bleak and bloody tale.
Her eyes glazed and eventually she said, “Mum, enough of Russia. Stop researching. You are doing my head in.”
I knew she was right!
I put my books and notebook away. I couldn't complain. We were in Tuscany to visit Dale’s friends. Their company arranged wine tours by Fiat 500. Each tiny car identical except for the paintwork; blue, red, green, cream and yellow. We drove the countryside in single file and paused at a glorious renaissance villa for lunch.
The next day, Dale and I went to Florence. Walking by the Palazzo Strozzi we stopped in our tracks. The current exhibition was The Russian Avant-garde, Siberia and the East. Dale rolled her eyes with a laugh, while mine twinkled. Fait accompli.
Wolves by Night
An 1912 oil painting by Alexei Stapanov, Wolves by Night, greeted us in the first exhibition room. A century ago this dude was troubled by the spread of urbanisation. He warned against man’s intrusion into Russia’s fabled and primitive wilderness. His wolves are bewildered by marks in the snow; parallel tracks like those of the iron road of the Trans-Siberian.
No escape from the Russian Chapter
The wolves were right to be nervous, Alexei Stapanov was right to be troubled.
Dale was troubled too. Was there no escaping the Russian chapter?
Wolves by Night was like a talisman for me. I didn't have to hunt the bears, just to throw ninety percent of what I had written to the wolves.