The Dipper

Sheepstor - the name applies equally to the village and to the tor above it.

Sheepstor – the name applies both to the village and to the tor above it.

Shortly after she had finished writing The Courtyard, Marcia was walking through the woods alongside the River Avon when she stopped to watch a dipper which was standing on a rock a few feet away from her. The dipper has been an important bird for us for a long time and neither of us can remember how that started. We once lived in a house where the garden bordered that river. A pair of dippers decided to nest exactly opposite – it was a wonderful summer! Anyway, you could say that that walk was the beginning of this book.

As Marcia began to think about the characters for this book, we realized that we had to be much more careful in deciding where characters lived.

We used to go regularly to The Bedford in Tavistock for a cup of coffee and often one of the staff (we knew them all very well in those days) would tell us that they had people staying who were trying to find all the places mentioned in one of the books. Marcia was beginning to be recognized and being asked about the various locations.

The real eye-opener, however, was at Ways With Words. This is a literary festival which is run every year at Dartington Hall.  Marcia had been speaking and was taking questions. Someone asked her point blank whether or not she used ‘real houses’ and if so did she think it was fair on the people living there.

Luckily the answer to the question was ‘no’, but it made us think and we have been very careful ever since (although, as we shall see, there are times when Marcia has used part of a building – always with the owner’s permission).

As Quentin and Clemmie began to inhabit Marcia’s imagination, she could see them living beside a similar river near Sheepstor and in a stone house at the end of a cart track that crossed a brook by way of an old stone bridge. Thus was the fictional Grange created. We never really knew exactly where this house was or where you would find Blackthorn Bridge: for some reason this didn’t matter.

Something we have not yet explored is the way in which Marcia invents her characters. What follows is, of necessity, a simplification as the process is extremely complicated and neither of us really knows exactly how it works.

It begins with, to quote Marcia, ‘a shadow of someone standing just behind your shoulder; turn round too quickly and it is gone.’ Gradually the shadow takes form and the characters and the situations in which they find themselves become clearer.

I believe that everyone has a strain of each human characteristic in them,’ Marcia says. ‘Sometimes it is such a tiny part that they don’t know they have it and sometimes it is so strong that it rules their lives. My job is to identify what makes and drives my people and then to extrapolate from my own feelings to imagine how it must be for them. This is far harder when I am exploring a character with a strong trait which is not well developed in my own temperament.’

This process takes a long time and weeks elapse while Marcia assembles the cast for the next book. Then she considers the situations they are in and finds out how they connect and react. This is very dangerous for an author – it is far safer to have a pre-determined story line and stick to it. What is really incredible is that Marcia always knows how a book is going to end (even down to the closing sentence) before she starts writing even though the middle remains a mystery.

Let us return to the our old couple living up on the high moor. Since we are in the Tavistock area, it is no surprise that there is a connection with some of the characters from the first two books. Quentin had been Aide de Camp to Cass’s father and had stood as godfather to The General’s namesake and grandson, Oliver, who is finding that a good degree from Cambridge is no guarantee of a job. Then there is Liz Whelan’s Uncle Eustace who is retired, bored with life and – his wife having died – a bit lonely.

And we must never forget Percy the parrot – a national hero thanks to Polly – who provides the key to all their futures.

Meanwhile we were to meet a number of other new characters. Phyllida, another of Marcia’s naval wives. She is living in a hiring in Yelverton with her young daughter: it is a Victorian house with big rooms which are draughty and difficult to heat but with glorious views of Dartmoor. It is homely, welcoming and a rather untidy.

Naval widow Prudence lives in a similar house in Clearbrook where she struggles to make ends meet by making children’s clothes to supplement her tiny pension.

In stark contrast to these is Claudia’s home: spotless and characterless. Poor Claudia has nothing to do all day apart from looking after the home – no great task as she has no children. She studied dress design at college but married before she could make good use of her skills and spends her time trying to climb the local social ladder. Her husband is an accountant and works for the same firm as Liz Whelan. When he is given charge of the Hope-Latymer’s accounts, Claudia sees this as the gateway to friendship with people like Annabel, Cass and their chums.

All we know about the location of her house is that it is on one of the new estates that have sprung up on the outskirts of Tavistock, probably towards the river Tamar.

A number of stories weave together in this book but behind them all is the fact that Quentin and Clemmie are of an age when they will soon be unable to stay at the Grange unless they can find someone to live with them. I can well understand how they feel: when we lived at the Hermitage, our nearest shop was over four miles away and the goods they offered very limited. Really we needed to drive seven miles to the nearest village with a decent store, a small garage and farm shop and our doctor’s surgery. As the years passed, it became clear we would have to move on and we decided to jump before we were pushed.

Although Marcia knew that Quentin and Clemmie lived up on the moor she was never quite sure where it was. However, their house is exposed to the south westerly gales that sweep across to rattle the slates on the roof and the keen, cold wind from the north freezes the water in the old cattle trough. Nevertheless, there are sheltered corners and, a short walk away, the wooded valley with the river where the dippers live. The inspiration for this walk was the wooded section of the River Avon near where we used to live. On most days Marcia would take the dogs for a walk through that wood to the river and then saunter along enjoying whatever was on offer. Because Marcia and I have always chosen to live as remotely as possible, we are often asked what we do all day when there is nothing happening to keep us amused. The truth is, of course, that there is a great deal happening but it does so at a pace which is far slower than that at which most people live today and we count ourselves fortunate indeed that we can enjoy such a relatively peaceful life – but not one everybody would like!

Spring and autumn are the best seasons as both see great changes. However, The Dipper opens in the summer, a summer that passes uneventfully for Quentin and Clemmie but when winter sets in again their son puts pressure on the old couple to be sensible and move into Tavistock. When Phyllida calls and tells them that she has been given notice to quit from her hiring in Yelverton, it is Clemmie who suggests that she might care to come and live with them. Alistair, Phyllida’s husband, is less than pleased but then, he is not to know what the future holds in store for them, is he?

Incidentally, shortly before Marcia started working on this book we had some terrible news. We heard that one of our gay friends had died of AIDS and his partner was very ill. These two young men opened our eyes to what it was to be gay – to the fear of discovery when in a hostile society and to the joy of being able to be open in one where tolerance ruled. Above all they were hardworking and likeable: not threatening, not at all frightening – just nice. In part this book is in memory of them.

It is also about complete forgiveness: about love which is strong enough to overcome the burden of jealousy.

For some notes and photographs describing The Dipper country the link is TD Country.