I had nothing I particularly wanted to say, until Sri Lanka.
It was 2014 and my fourth visit to the island – previously a way of renewing 6 month India visas. This time I was there with my wife, researching her family history. Discovering her genealogy was fascinating – I began to feel like one of the family. There was George, who went over with a British foot regiment during the Kandian wars and stayed. There were engine drivers on the most incredible of railways across the central mountains, and of course, coffee planters driving different engines, competing with India and Java to fill the warehouses of Europe (coffee leaf rust devastated the industry and was replaced by tea around 1900). I was captivated, pouring over old newspaper clippings in Colombo library archives, and the Planters Association of Ceylon who were very generous in allowing us to look at their library.
Part of my interest had previously been sparked by the Raj in India. Standing in Simla in the Himalayan foothills, where the British Government decamped from the hot summers of the Indian plains, I was moved by history. Sure, growing up in York, England I was surrounded by history. King George VI once remarked ‘the history of York is the history of England’ – Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans. When I was a pre-teen, in the late ’60’s, before the arrival of what was termed ‘theme park Britain’ I used to run around buildings and over ruins with all the other snotty-nosed children in our gang, a living history with little time for reflection. But looking at those ramshackle, wooden, hillside bungalows now filled with Indian families, and the ‘house where Madame Blavatsky stayed’, I sensed a closeness to history I had seldom experienced before. Perhaps the only other memorable time was on Cyprus at some forgotten Roman ruins, alone, miles from anywhere, I stood beside stone columns and long forgotten people.
Learning about the history of the empires which had bedevilled Sri Lanka was illuminating. I also learned about elephants and their long association with humans. I liked the idea that the elephants had been left alone in the mountain region to go about their vital duty of making rain. That was when a deeper history struck me. I realised elephants were doing what elephants do (what I imagined that to be is a significant part of my book) for a long time before ‘civilised’ humans appeared and started tearing up the place – the Mahavamsa records Prince Vijaya arriving with his 700 followers in about 500BC.
Fossil records show Elephas maximus living in Sub Saharan Africa during the Pliocene some 5.333 million to 2.58 years ago. They left, gradually reaching Sri Lanka. How long have they been there? half a million years? I don’t know. Long enough to develop into an entire sub-species Elephas maximus maximus. Genetic analysis indicates that Borneo elephants, for example, separated from mainland populations 300,000 years ago.
There is evidence of anatomically modern homo sapiens on the island from 40,000 years ago in the guise of Balangoda man, and more widely, there are records of hominids in Asia some 200,000 years ago – Narmada man of Madhya Pradesh perhaps an archaic homo sapien. However, I don’t believe early hominids had quite the same impact on elephants as we have since the rise of so called human civilisations.
In a flash, a moment of clarity, there was a book I had to write, having never previously shown any interest in the medium other than essay deadlines at college. It arrived unbidden, but was very exciting. I knew it would be a fictional tale about the history of Sri Lankan elephants and include the British Empire. It never once occurred to me I would not be able to do it. Not hubris, it felt achievable, almost necessary. Unfortunately, we left Asia early and came home to England. Life took over. After two years I was still thinking about the book, and began to think I would regret not writing it. I had to get it out of me, for my own sake, so I quit the job I had (I know, I know – but I had some savings) and started writing with no experience and little idea where the story would lead. I gave myself one year to do it.
There are many E. L. Doctorow quotes which seem relevant – here are two: ‘It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way’. and, ‘Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go’. Both true in my case.
It has been a wonderful experience, watching the story unfold and meeting the characters who arrived from my subconscious. Many days I sat down with no idea what would come next, only to create something totally unexpected. I am not saying it hasn’t been hard work, or that whole worlds haven’t ended up in my recycle bin, but steadily a story emerged from my imagination. I wrote on average five hours a day for about six months, and thought I had ‘cracked it’. Then the editing began, starting with a ruthlessly honest appraisal of the novel. The book improved immeasurably over the next six month and is as polished as I am going to get it. More importantly, I found Padma and gave her a voice. She is close to me now as is George and Rani, Abullabaz and Kandula, and so many more friends I am discovering. It has been cathartic, allowing me to think through some of my feelings about our strange disconnection from nature, its exploitation and the future consequences.
I would like to sell some copies and make some money – sure. I would like to make enough money to do something for elephants – absolutely. I would like to earn enough to cover a years unpaid work and replenish my disappearing savings – definitely. I would love to earn enough to be able to afford to write more – a dream. But hey, I have written a novel! and loved every minute. I still live with the characters and think about what I could do with them next, but given that Amazon books on average sell 400 copies, it’s likely I shall soon be back in full-time PAID work. I will write again though, when I find time.
I shall continue to promote the book, an area of self-publishing I have no experience in, however, I am learning fast. I have no money to pay for £3,000 reviews or even 3 for $49.99 (nor would I wish to), I don’t have the money to compete for much advertising space on social platforms, and I can’t really afford to follow the, ‘in order to sell your book you need to buy my book’ adverts, or buy re-tweet packages, or book videos. All great ways to promote work, I just cannot afford it. I have a free blog, a Facebook page, a Goodreads page, an Amazon page etc. etc. and a ten year old computer on which to operate. If I only sell one copy, it doesn’t really matter. I have created something I love. I am indebted to the art of writing.