In the summer of 2016, I moved to Putney in south-west London and got a new job that meant I could cycle to work. Some days on my two-wheeled commute I would get to the river at Putney Bridge and turn left to pedal upriver along the Thames river path. I would pass long hedges of hawthorn and elder trees, horse chestnuts with the beginnings of orange patches on their leaves and families of geese with adolescent young aquaplaning awkwardly on the high water. I swerved for unleashed dogs, stray conkers and the occasional pigeon, and as I rode I found a quiet kind of glee that settled in my heart and stayed all day. To be close to the green workings of the world even in the metropolis was an unexpected gift.
Other days, my route to work took me to the bridge and then right, cycling eastwards towards the far-off sea. On those days I rode along a concrete path that meandered past a landscaped park, Wandsworth recycling centre, B&Q, a heliport and long walls of shiny glass-fronted river-facing apartment blocks that seemed beamed from the future. I swerved for pedestrians absorbed in their phones, delivery vans and random bollards meant to deter intentions of free access. I longed to turn my handlebars westwards and head back to the trees.
My commute in those days was a tale of two rivers, the wild one and another that was tamed and polluted and industrialised. Of course, I know the Thames is one of the least wild rivers in the world. It’s tired and old, wrinkled with silt, dumping its ancient waste on its banks as it limps along to the sea. I know that its whole length has been transformed by millennia of human activity, not just the stretch of it with fewer trees and more city stink. And yet. The tension in the contrast between the two sides of Putney Bridge plucked a note in me. Perhaps I could write about that feeling, I thought. Perhaps there’s some kind of story there.
At around the same time, I happened across different articles during the aimless internet browsing that takes the place of daydreaming for so many of us these days, articles I probably couldn’t find again but, like the river path, gave me that shiver of what if. I read about the flood myths of different cultures maybe referring to the sea level rise at the end of the last ice age; indigenous societies coding the knowledge of how to survive tyrannical acts of the earth inside their oral tradition; the weaving looms of Neolithic peoples; the work of Marija Gimbutas on the pre-patriarchal cultures of Europe; the projected floods of the twenty-second century and their impact on the great coastal cities of this civilisation.
Perhaps I could write about some of this. Perhaps there’s some kind of story here.
Where do you get your ideas from, people sometimes ask. I’m never all that sure what to say, because finished things have often enfolded their initial inspiration so deep inside them it’s impossible to excavate it and put it on display without destroying a part of it. You won’t find a tadpole inside a frog, but they are the same being.
But the question also implies that ideas are rare and elusive, which is not my experience at all. Sometimes I wonder if there are any places ideas don’t live. There are ideas in the chatter of the aspen leaves on a windy day, ideas in the balls of poplar fluff stuck in the spokes of my bike, ideas in the smell of the mud at low tide. Whether they are good ones, whether they are destined for me or whether they will ever ignite into something alive and vibrant are different issues, but they are always there.
Mostly, I tend to think there’s a more interesting question lurking behind where do you get your ideas from. I think can you tell me more about what made those specific ideas collide to make the story you ended up telling gives a richer, more satisfying answer, but it’s also more accurate. I feel that’s what ideas really do, like tectonic plates crashing together to form a mountain out of rock that used to hide under the earth’s crust.
My novel Dark River is about an ancient river both before and after its taming. It’s about floods and the stories of floods, forests and oceans, motherhood and sacrifice. Some of these threads I can trace back to my old commute along the Thames, some of them to my reading, some to old itches that I attempt to scratch with everything I write. Some of the others I cannot trace at all, they are knotted too deep inside the novel for me to tug them out into the light to examine them. Still others I cannot even see, and it will take the novel going out into the world and finding its readers for the hidden tendrils of inspiration to reveal themselves. Perhaps prompted by the question: where did that idea come from?
Dark River by Rym Kechacha is published by Unsung Stories and is available here.
Cover image by Free-Photos
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