The Watcher: an Extract from John Burnside’s ‘Havergey’

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EVENT: John Burnside will be in conversation with Matthew Beaumont, chaired by Gareth Evans, at the Bookshop on Wednesday 24 May, discussing his new novel Havergey. Book tickets here. Read on for an intriguing extract from the beginning of the novel.

On these midwinter days, the harbour – the whole island – can be preternaturally serene, and I cannot help but wonder about the effects of place and weather and light (especially light) on the formation of a people, and its sense of itself. I’m not much interested in ideas like national character, but I do believe that place, if it’s looked at closely enough, can say a great deal about how people behave. When I lived for a time on the East Coast of Scotland, the longest I ever stayed in one place until I came here, I would walk to the harbour every day, and it fortified me, the blueish light off the water and the sense of space above that little port town. Yet it was nowhere near as wide and lit a space as this, and the water was never so still as it is this late winter afternoon. In the evenings here, the water can be periwinkle blue for an hour before it darkens, utterly smooth, though not in the hard sense, like glass, but with a perfect surface tension, a perturbability to it, like mercury. Yes: like quicksilver. At such times, it feels as if I can see for miles: all the way to the mainland, in fact, though now that there are no lights over there, the mainland is nothing more than haze and speculation. Still, I can see for miles and I am more than usually attentive to the subtlest shifts in the landscape, the smallest movement, the least change.

This is my talent and that makes me a Watcher. What I watch for, normally, are changes in the seasonal colours, shifts in the atmosphere, for how, sometimes, the sky offers fair warning of what it has in store for us. In winter, I look up into the great vault of the sky and pick out the stars, recalling names I learned years ago from my uncle, who was one of the first nomads to venture north after the last great plague was finally over. I love to look up and see the constellations, the planets, the occasional shooting star, partly because they remind me of him – his name was Amiel – and partly because they feel like a covenant of some kind, a promise that there’s still life out there, in all that wild continuity across the water that divides us from the mainland. That evening, however, what I saw had nothing to do with that covenant, or with the weather, or the changing land. What I saw was almost nothing, in fact, just the merest hint of a blue that was not there before – and that was why I knew it was human-made. So I turned from the harbour and headed inland, to see what it was.

Havergey’ is published by Little Toller Press, priced at £12. John Burnside will be discussing his novel at the Bookshop on Wednesday 24 May. Book tickets here.

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