Two enjoyable things that are keeping me pleasurably occupied during this strange time are the Big Read’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and a masterclass in the Art of Storytelling by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman states how ‘connections are what fiction is made up of’ and I’ve read before how ‘patternicity’ or apophenia, a propensity to seek patterns in random information, is a common affliction of storytellers!
It was a very strange set of connections that led me to write my first novel, Isabella, and they revolve around The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The Lyrical Ballads was one of the set texts for my A Level English Literature exams and the gothic, supernatural elements and the dark, terrifying lyrics of the epic Ancient Mariner poem made a massive impression on me as a teenager. I can still quote huge chunks of it. I was also a fan of David Essex who was playing the part of Fletcher Christian in the musical ‘Mutiny’ at the Piccadilly Theatre and this got me fascinated in the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty…which lead me to discover a fascinating connection between the mutiny and the mariner.
Coleridge's notebooks for 1785 to 1789 include the enigmatic entry for a possible title for a poem, - ‘Adventures of Christian, the Mutineer.’ This idea that Fletcher inspired the character of the ancient mariner is explored in a 1930s book, The Wake of the Bounty by C S Wilkinson, who unearths several links between Wordsworth, Coleridge and the Christian family who all lived in the Lake District. He speculates that Fletcher returned in secret and hid on Belle Isle, the picturesque island in the middle of Lake Windermere, which was home to Fletcher’s beautiful cousin, Isabella Curwen. The preface for the original version of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner published in 1798, strikes a haunting chord with Fletcher Christian’s guilt and supposed wanderings. When I discovered rumours of a teenage romance between Fletcher and his cousin and also that Fletcher named his Tahitian wife Isabella, the plot for my first book was born.
When the novel was eventually published by Orion I made the original preface for the Ancient Mariner a preface for my own book.
The Big Read Project, an ‘immersive work of audio and visual art’ involves readings of verses of the poem posted every day for forty days. So far readers have included Jeremy Irons, Hilary Mantel, Willem Dafoe, Iggy Pop, Beth Gibbons, Robert McFarlane and Cerys Matthews. It has apparently been three years in the making but its launch coincided with the beginning of lockdown which is very timely in many ways. The intro page describes how ‘this poem is the first great work of English literature to speak to isolation and loneliness.’
As well as writing stories, I also write for FarmED, a new project dedicated to promoting regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems, which connects me back again to the Mariner.
It’s described by the creators of the Big Read as ‘a founding fable of our modern age. We are the wedding guests, and the albatross around the Mariner's neck is an emblem of human despair and our abuse of the natural world.’ It describes how ’in its beautiful terror there lies a wondrous solution – that we might wake up and find ourselves saved.’