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Horatio Clare

Father, author, teacher, travel writer, university lecturer, walker, farmer 

Born in London, England. Based in West Yorkshire, England and South Wales, UK

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About

Born in West London, raised in South Wales, educated in England and Wales, lived in St Etienne, Grenoble, York, Tiverton, Newcastle, London, Palermo, St Davids, Rochdale, Verona and Hebden Bridge; at home in Cwmdu.

Trained as a journalist, worked as a lifeboat cox, barman and a BBC radio producer; became an author in 2005, publishing ten books in various genres, so far.

Currently senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores and Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Liverpool.

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Bibliography

The Paratrooper's Princess, 2016, Accent Press

Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, 2015, Firefly Press

Orison for a Curlew, 2015, Little Toller Books

Down to the Sea in Ships, 2014, Chatto and Windus (Vintage 2015)

The Prince's Pen, Seren, 2011

A Single Swallow, 2009, Chatto and Windus (Vintage 2010)

Truant, 2007, John Murray

Sicily Through Writers' Eyes, 2006, Eland Books

Running for the Hills, 2006, John Murray

Extract: Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot

  The doctor says Aubrey's father is depressed. Aubrey knows better: Jim has fallen under an horrendous spell, which Aubrey is determined to break. Everyone says his task is impossible, but Aubrey will never give up, and  never surrender - even if he must fight the unkillable spirit of darkness itself: the TERRIBLE YOOT! 

Chapter One - Rambunctious Boy

  Aubrey's first scream was so loud it blew the wax out of his midwife's ears. All babies cry when they are born, but Aubrey's WAAAWWLL! was so fierce it ripped through the hospital, blared out of the windows and set off a doctor's car alarm.

  An old nurse with a face like a kindly gargolye washed him and wrapped him in a blanket.   

  "This child has the howl of a wolf!" said the old nurse, as she swaddled Aubrey tight.

  Aubrey took another breath and yowled so loudly he went purple. He kicked like mad, too, catching the nurse a good hoof in the windbag.

  "Guh!" she gasped, "And he's - ..." She searched for the right word, unable to breathe until she found it, "...Rambunctious!"  

  The nurse was pleased: she could not remember using 'rambunctious' before. She looked it up when she got home: it is an American word, about two hundred years old, and it means what it sounds like.

  There is a theory that children subconsciously remember everything they ever hear. I don't know if it's true, but - Rambunctious!..Wolf! - it might explain what happened next.  
 

 Next, when he was less than a year old, Aubrey saw a runner pass the house where he lived with his parents. He decided it was time he ran, too. At his age wolf cubs can run marathons. Aubrey had barely learned how to stand.

  "Quick!" he thought, "Get moving!"

  He jumped up, thew himself forward and flung out a leg, just like the runner. His body kept going forward but the leg gave up suddenly. The floor flipped up and biffed him one. He tried again many times. Bonk, bump, thump - it was like listening to apples rolling off a table.

  "That's Aubrey again, smashing the place up," remarked Mr Ferraby, as the thuds and blows of Aubrey's running practice reverberated through Woodside Terrace. The Ferrabys lived next door. Mr Ferraby was an expert on the astonishing array of sounds Aubrey created as he became bigger, stronger and more adventurous.
 

  Aubrey's parents begged him to be patient.

  "Please try walking first!" implored his mother, Suzanne. (Suzanne was a nurse. She knew her son was a tough but she was worried he would hurt himself.)

  "It's the traditional next step!" his father said. (Jim was an English teacher who loved stories. He was secretly delighted that his son did not seem interested in following the normal story pattern of stand, then walk, then run.)
 

  The little boy ignored them both. He specialised in ignoring Jim and Suzanne. He loved them, but you can't spend too much time listening to your parents, can you? Not if you want to live your own life to the full...
 

  'Live Life To The Full' was Aubrey's philosophy. Having a philosophy is a very good thing, especially if it leads you on a life-saving quest. However, having a philosophy is not such a good thing if it leads you to crash two cars before you are old enough to drive one, which is more or less what happened next.
 

FOOTNOTE: Aubrey's philosophy at this point is somewhere near Hedonism: live life for pleasure and excitement, nothing is more important. An ancient Greek genius called Democritus came up with the idea that contentment and happiness are the aim of a well-lived life, and if you feel them, it proves you are living well.

You might feel it does not take a genius to come up with that but Democritus also came up with the idea of atoms, two thousand years before their existence was proved.

FOOTNOTE TO FOOTNOTE

Like Hedonism, atoms turn out to be something of a mixed blessing. 

 

  When he was four years old Aubrey thought it might be fun to take the car for a spin. He had often watched his parents driving: it was easy. One Sunday afternoon, when his father was upstairs sleeping under one of his favourite books, and his mother was in the garden, poking around in the vegetable patch and talking to the woodpigeons, Aubrey climbed a chair and took the car key off the table. He was banned from using front door by himself because the lane was just there, but now he did - very quietly - and stepped out. He pointed the key at the car and pressed the button. The car clicked and flashed its lights at him in its friendly way.

  'Hello car!' Aubrey whisperd. He was looking forward to his first drive very much.

  He climbed in. The view from the driving seat was mostly sky, with a steering wheel across it. He stood up on the seat - that was much better! He could see all the way down the lane towards town, and he could see the great wood rising up on both sides of the valley, and he could see Mr and Mrs Ferraby's smart blue German car, parked smack in front of him. He would have to go around that.

  'Hang on a minute,' you may be thinking, 'Four year-olds do not make good drivers. This is such a horrifying exploit that even telling it may be dangerous! It may encourage similar madness.'

   Well, maybe. But Aubrey forgot to put the key in the ignition, which meant that the engine did not switch on, which meant he was never going to get very far.

  However, he did not forget to let the handbrake off.

  He knew it would be hard work by the way his mother and father hauled on the brake. Haul up, push the button, and let down: Aubrey did this with both hands while standing on the seat. It worked a treat. The lane just here tilts slightly down towards the town, so as soon he released the brake the car began to move.

  "Yup!" cried Aubrey. It was one of his favourite words.

  "YUP!" he shouted, as the car began to roll properly, and he turned the steering wheel hard to the right, because Mr and Mrs Ferraby's car was very close now and he had to go round it or - CRUNCH!

  Mr Ferraby's car began to shout and wail like a goose and a donkey having a fight - HONK HONK! - HEE HAAW! - and flash all its lights in distress.
 

  Because Woodside Terrace is a very quiet place, where nothing really disturbs the peace except the postman, the parking ticket patrol, the waste disposal truck, the delivery lorry to the tearoom in the old mill, the 10,000 tourists who pass every summer on their way to explore the Rushing Wood, as well as all the nice people who go walking, running, cycling and exercising dogs every day, the sound of car alarms is seldom heard there.
 

  Mr Ferraby had never even heard his car's alarm before. He burst out of his house, wild-eyed and ready to rescue his beloved machine from any peril. Thieves, bandits and vandals were rarely seen on Woodside Terrace but now Mr Ferraby imagined a horde of them attacking Liebling Trudi, as he secretly called his car, because she was so German, so sleek and so glossy.

  Mr Ferraby believed he was going to have to fight about ten vandals and/or bandits, certainly two or three, and he was determined to defend Liebling Trudi to the last. He was certain his chances of victory were non-existent, and felt it was a pity he must die now, in the prime of his late middle age. But if his time had come he was ready. His doomed and fearless last stand would make Trudi proud of him, and Mrs Ferraby too.

  Braced for a death-struggle with all the crazy-faced, saw-toothed cohorts of hell, Mr Ferraby was entirely unprepared for the sight of Aubrey, standing in the driving seat of his father's car - the nose of which was rammed into the back of Liebling Trudi - gripping the wheel with both hands and wearing a reassuring smile.

  "You little vandal bandit!" Mr Ferraby cried.
 

 As soon as she heard Trudi's alarm Suzanne felt a familiar conviction. Suzanne could move with great speed when she wanted to: she was out of the garden and down to the lane so quickly that her son believed she must jumped over the house. "Aubrey! Aubrey?" she called, as she flew towards the noise.

 On her arrvial, Aubrey gave her his reassuring smile, too.
 

  His father woke up from under his book and stuck his head out of the attic window as the appalling noise of mechanical distress filled the afternoon with honk-wailing.

  "Aubrey?" he called, "Is that you?"
 

  As Suzanne lifted the little boy out of the car, Aubrey gave his father a champion's grin - such a radiant, triumphant smile that you would have thought crashing the cars was exactly what everyone had been hoping he would do, and now they going to give him a medal for it. His father could not help himself. He laughed.
 

  Mr Ferraby switched off Liebling Trudi's distress and looked up at his laughing neighbour with the expresssion of a man whose dentist's drilling hand has just slipped.

  "Sorry, sorry, Mr Ferraby," said Aubrey's father, "Is there much damage? I'm coming down..," and he ducked back inside.  
 

  "Your car has a great alarm Mr Ferraby!" said Aubrey, admiringly, but his compliment was lost under the many apologies his mother was making, and the telling-off she was giving him at the same time.

  "Did you just jump over the house, Mum?" he asked her, but she did not seem to hear. She was very busy with Mr Ferraby.

  Mr Ferraby did not go bright red and roar "If you can't control that child I am going to eat him!" which part of him longed to roar - the same part which wanted to throw his hat on the ground and stamp on it with rhythmic fury until he felt better. He did not do these things. He was good man, was Mr Ferraby. And he was not wearing a hat.

  "The boy's alright is he?" he asked, with wonderful courtesy.

  "He is," Suzanne said, "And he's never going to do anything like that again. Apologise to Mr Ferraby, Aubrey!"

  "Sorry Mr Ferraby," said Aubrey. "I tried to miss."

  "Doesn't look like there's much harm done," Mr Ferraby said, with immense bravery and self-control. He could see a blistering big dent in Liebling Trudi's back bumper.

  "Very sorry Mr Ferraby," Suzanne said, fiercely. "And I'll never do anything so stupid again."

  "Very sorry Mr Ferraby," Aubrey said, "I've never done anything so stupid again."

  "Alright," said Mr Ferraby, quietly. "No one got hurt, that's the main thing." He retreated into his house, where Mrs Ferraby was making a pot of tea. Mr Ferraby gave her a strained smile. "That was Aubrey," he told her, "Smashing up the car."
 

  Jim and Suzanne's joint lecture about The Car Incident seemed to work. They were horrified (once Jim had stopped laughing) about the damage Aubrey could have caused, and they blamed themselves for leaving the key where he could reach it. As it turned out, hitting Trudi was the best thing Aubrey could have done. If he had missed her, and set off in a car which he had no way of controlling - well, Suzanne said she "Shuddered to think of the consquences."

  Aubrey said he would have used the handbrake and Jim said actually the lane levelled out and he wouldn't have got far, but Suzanne said she was not interested in their theories: what was dangerous, illegal and wrong would always be dangerous, illegal and wrong. Jim and Aubrey had to agree with that.
 

  Of course Aubrey still ignored them on what he considered Small Issues, like flooding the bathroom, raiding the fridge, skiing down the stairs (which came much closer to killing him than driving the car), wearing the cat like a bearskin hat, setting water traps and riding his bicycle backwards down the steep bit of the garden. (He only needed three stitches after that, which Suzanne did for him in the bathroom.) But he was careful not to pull anything too stylish, dramatic or dangerous, because he loved his parents and did not want to worry them.

  For the next few years the boy went to school, read books, messed about, played games with his friends, loved the holidays, and grew. But then the horrendous spell came over his father and Aubrey realised all the rules would have to change.

 

Chapter Two - The Spell

  "What's up with Dad?" Aubrey asked his mother, as they did the shopping, one rainy Saturday afternoon. "His face is like a sinking moon."

  "He's just a bit worried," Suzanne said. "He could do with some cheering up."

  "What's he worried about?"

  Suzanne shook her head. "He's not really sure. He's not sleeping much at night."

  "Is that why he's sleeping today?"

  "Yes. We need to make sure he eats well, sleeps and takes lots of exercise - so if he asks you to go for a walk do go. And if he doesn't, you ask him, would you darling? It's just what he needs."

  "Sure," said Aubrey.
 

  As well as being a sensible woman Suzanne was an excellent nurse, and what she said should have been true. When people are worried, food, sleep and exercise are exactly what they need. But Suzanne did not know that her poor husband was falling under the horrendous spell. Nobody knew, not even Jim. He knew something was wrong, but he had no idea what it was.
 

  "Ok Dad?"

  Aubrey and Jim were walking to school. Normally Jim would be looking at the trees, at the clouds, at the birds and at Aubrey, and chatting away about everything. He was the sort of English teacher whose jacket is sometimes a bit scruffy, whose shirts are old and comfortable rather than sharp and new, whose hair occasionally looks as though it is to happy to have been brushed much, and who just loves telling stories. He was not a man to miss anything interesting, and everything was interesting to him, normally.

  But this morning he was looking at his feet, as though all he wanted to do was watch his shoes walking down the lane.

  "Hm? Oh, yes. Fine."

  "You don't look that fine."

  "Don't I?"

  "You look like a man wearing a heavy hat."
 

  Aubrey's father smiled and squeezed his hand.

  "That's exactly right." he said. "That is how I feel. Like a man wearing a heavy hat. I am sorry it makes me a bit quiet. I'm sure it will pass. It's probably just the summer ending, and going back to work."

  "But you love work! You love teaching!"

  Jim sighed. "I do, normally. It's just this heavy hat."

  On the way back from school, as they walked up the lane, Aubrey took a long sideways look at Jim. His father's face was pale and tense. His gaze seemed empty. It was as though his eyes stared into his own mind and saw only sad thoughts there.

  "How's the heavy hat, Dad?" Aubrey asked quietly.

  Jim looked down at him and swallowed. Aubrey could see his father was struggling with what to say next.

  "It's still there," he said, huskily. "And there's something else."

  "What?"

  "There's a feeling in my stomach."

  "What's it like?"

  "It's like... You mustn't worry, Aubrey Boy. It's just a feeling. Feelings pass, you know?"

  "I know!" Aubrey exclaimed. "But what does it feel like?"

  "It's like a hairy worm," his father said quietly, and as he said it he looked frightened.
 

  The next morning, and the morning after that, Suzanne drove Aubrey to school.

  "Dad's still not feeling well," she said. "He's having another day in bed."

  "Is it the hairy worm and the heavy hat?"

  She nodded. "Yes. And the panicked bird."

  "What bird?"

  "He says it feels as though he has a panicked bird in his chest, trying to get out."

  "Can you cure him, Mum?"
 

  Aubrey knew his mother could cure pretty well anything. The best nurses are as good as the best doctors, and Suzanne was brilliant. He watched her face, hoping for her reassuring smile. It was such a beautiful, calming smile her patients felt better just for seeing it. But that smile did not come. Instead, her mouth bent into a frown, and her head gave a slow half-shake.

  "It's very difficult," she said. "If he had a germ or a virus or a wound or a disease I could help him. But it isn't any of those. We just have to look after him, and be very gentle with him until he comes out of it. And we have to be cheery and optimistic, ok?"

  "OK!" said Aubrey, with a cheerfulness he did not really feel.

  "Good boy!" said his mother. "Such a good boy! You are wonderful at being cheerful and optimistic!"

  (Aubrey wondered if this was the moment to tell her about the sort-of-accident he had had yesterday after a bet with his friend Harrison, involving the two footballs which had somehow broken two classroom windows in under five seconds. He decided to let it rest for now. The Head of the Junior School had said she would be writing to his parents to tell them all about it.)  
 

  When they came home again that evening, the first thing Aubrey did was run upstairs to see his father. He found Jim out of bed, half dressed, wearing old trousers, one of his best shirts, and one sock.

  "Hello Aubrey Boy!" His father's lips made a shape which looked as though it was trying very hard to be a smile.

  "Hullo Dad. Are you feeling any better?"

  "Sort of," his father said. "I can't seem to decide what to wear."

  "Are you going out?"

  "No, just coming down to make supper. I think. Or is your mother making it?"

  And that was the start of the indecisions.
 

  Over the next few days Jim made indecision after indecision.

  If you asked him whether he wanted tea or coffee he could not tell you. It was as though he made haphazard guesses instead. He repeated the question, "Tea? Or coffee?" as though he'd never had the choice before. Then he came out with "Tea! Please! If you're having some? Or coffee?"

  Which was not very helpful. And poor Jim knew it.
 

  "Dad?"

  "Yes?"

  "Would you rather play in the garden or walk in the wood?"

  Jim looked agonised. Different expressions ran over his face, as if he wanted to play in the garden and walk in the wood at the same time, and at the same time did not want to walk in the wood or play in the garden at all, but felt that he ought to do one of them because Aubrey wanted to, and so was trying to work out which Aubrey would like most - when all Aubrey had asked him was which one he wanted to do!

  Asking Jim what he wanted for supper, lunch or breakfast was a great mistake. He simply had no idea. When he dressed he dressed very strangely and looked miserable in his clothes. He stayed in bed a great deal, curled up as though he was cold. He said sorry a lot, apologising for being tired, for being sad, for being lost. But no matter how many times you said it was fine, he didn't have to say sorry, he kept seeming sorrier and sorrier and sadder and sadder.
 

  Soon Jim's pale face and wobbly eyes made him look like a ghost who has spooked himself in a mirror. He took a second week off work, but instead of recovering his bounce he seemed to lose every last scrap of it. His zip was gone; there was no sign of his zing. You would have thought he had never had a spring or a skip in his step. Sometimes he seemed so wispy he might have been made out of mist. Suzanne took him to the doctor, of course. The doctor said there was nothing physically wrong with him. The problem was in his thoughts.
 

  "He's unhappy but he doesn't know why. You could call it the blues, or the glums," Suzanne explained to Aubrey. "It happens to lots of people. They just feel very sad. But they get better. He'll get better if we look after to him: he needs food and rest and love."

  Aubrey nodded but he was not really listening to this stuff about blue gums. His father's gums weren't blue, they were pink. He was quite surprised his mother had missed that, but he was too busy to worry about her mistake. He was working out what to do about the horrendous spell.

 

Chapter 3  Tackling The Problem

  First he looked up 'Horrendous Spell' on the internet. He found lots of pages about spelling 'horrendous' (but he could do that) and pages about why people's spelling is horrendous (ignorance, carelessness or disability, apparently) and he found pages on various horrendous spells you could use in games, like Horrendous Shout, which knocks monsters back a bit and stops them hitting you, and Horrendous Dessication which sounded fantastic. Aubrey read the description: "Everything within 300 feet of the spell caster becomes whithered and dessicated."

  Aubrey thought about learning Horrendous Dessication. It would be tremendous to see it in action. But even watching his son dessicate a circle of wood 600 feet in diameter probably wouldn't cheer Jim up all that much. Also, Aubrey had private reasons for not wanting to upset the Great Wood.

  "Concentrate!" Aubrey told himself. "Stick to saving Dad. You can always learn Horrendous Dessication when he's better. Now, how are we going to do this?"
 

  Aubrey narrowed his eyes and thought especially hard. Supposing we go about it the other way, he thought. Supposing I put his symptoms into the computer, then it can tell me what's wrong with him, then I can look up what to do. How simple everything is with a computer! He found a symptom checker very easily. It asked a lot of questions.
 

  "Where are you?" demanded the symptom checker.

  "In the attic," Aubrey typed into the box.

  "Postcode not recognised," replied the symptom checker. "This advice is for people in England only."

  "MUM! WHAT'S OUR POSTCODE?"

  "HX77AJ!" Suzanne shouted. Aubrey typed it in.

  "How old are you?" asked the checker.

  "7" Aubrey typed.

  "Please confirm you are being supervised by an adult."

  Aubrey wanted to type "Sort of!" but there wasn't a box for it. You either had to click Yes or No.

  He read the instruction again. Please confirm you are being supervised - ok then, he thought, if that's what you want. Since you can't confirm something by denying it, and since the symptom checker was asking him to confirm something, he clicked Yes and did not even feel bad about it.
 

  Now the questions came thick and fast. Was his tongue swelling up? Could he breathe? Was it possible to wake him up? Were the whites of his eyes yellow? Was he drowsy? Were his feet cold? Did he go to the loo a lot? Did he have diabetes? Were there little red pin pricks on his skin? Was he weak, dizzy or lightheaded? Did he have a temperature? Did he have a rash? Had he been bitten or stung? Is his skin cold or clammy?

 Answering these questions meant taking the computer down to his parents' room and giving Jim a thorough check-up before clicking Yes or No to each question.

  "What are you up to, Aubrey Boy?" his father asked, as Aubrey peered at his eyeballs, squeezed his tongue, felt his feet and looked for rashes.

  "Have you been bitten? Do you feel drowsy?" Aubrey demanded.

  "No - I don't think so. What's biting you?"

  "Have you got diabetes?"

  "No! Well, I don't think so. The doctor didn't mention it. Why?"

  "What does clammy mean?"

  "Sort of damp and a bit sticky. Cold wet but not that cold and - not that wet," Jim said, looking a bit embarrassed. "Dampish..."

  "It's ok, you're not," Aubrey said. "That's strange."

  "Why? Should I be clammy?"

  "I'm finding out what's wrong with you so that we can cure it," Aubrey said. "Just keep quiet please. Keep calm. Eat something. Rest."

  "Oh my wonderful boy!" Jim cried, springing out of bed and sweeping Aubrey up in a hug. His arms felt thin and bony.

  "My wonderful boy!" he exclaimed again, and he had a tear in his eye.

  "Why are you crying Dad?"

  "I'm not! But you shouldn't be worried - and it's all my fault! I love you so much, and I'm so sorry I'm depressed, and not a happy Dad, not a sparky Dad  - I'm so sorry!"

  "You ARE!" Aubrey said, "Normally you are sparky!", and he started wriggling.
 

   His father put him down and Aubrey was about to spin back to the computer but at that moment his mother called him to tea. Jim said he would have his later. Jim's meal times had all moved later.

  Aubrey and his Mum ate a fish pie she had made. It was delicious, with a creamy sauce lathered all over golden potato and lumps of succluent fish. Even so, Suzanne almost spat some succulent fish across the kitchen when Aubrey said, "Mum, has Dad gone bats?"

  "No!" she said. "Why do you ask?"

  "He was almost crying when he said he was sorry he wasn't sparky."

  "Oh! That's ok," Suzanne said, smiling seriously. "He's a very loving man and it makes him sad not to be able to be funny and fun for you."

  "When will he be better, Mum?"

  Suzanne put down her knife and fork.

  "The fact is darling, we don't know. It could last a week, it could last a month, or even more. We just can't tell. It's a strange thing, these feelings of sadness he has. I haven't had much experience of them and nor has he. But I'd be surprised if he doesn't start bobbing back up soon. I think he was just over-tired."

  "What's depressed?"

  "That's what it's called, when you are sad, very sad, and you can't make yourself happy in the normal ways."

  Hmm, thought Aubrey, you can't make yourself happy in the normal ways. That means - we have to go beyond the normal.   

Extract: Inexplicable Truths

  The Church in Wales, not the Church of England, was responsible for denying the couple a Service of Blessing with all their friends present. Close family only, said the sour priest, at the last minute. The groom was a divorcee and the bride was one of those women, rarer now perhaps, who thought marriage could help a relationship. She had not really wanted to do it. She had been the only daughter of non-missionaries in a school for the daughters of missionaries. She was CofE-ish. All their London friends had to wait in the Farmers Arms until it was over.

  When they had children and divorced the groom told the children it was All Nonsense (he had been a believer for a period, before converting to Atheism) while the bride had a terrible falling out with God, loathed the vicar anyway, and said belief was up to them - to my brother and me. It was whatever we thought it was.

  I thought it was All Nonsense (and cruder) the day my squirrel died and from then on, for a long time. The school had made me put him in a cage in a basement. He committed suicide the way animals do, by curling up and - sending his spirit on (or somesuch hippy nonsense). It was a self-induced coma, and a lesson that God is not above allowing deep misery to afflict the least of humans over the most insignificant of tragedies.

  At home the vicar changed. A saintly man, one of very few recognised icon painters in the country, came to tea. He told me God existed. I thought him smug.(He was not.) I cannot remember when faith came near me again. At the age of 30 a great friend became furious with me one night because I would not renounce belief in something.

  That same summer I published my first book and an essay of mine was included in an anthology about Marrakech. The essay was about the feeling of being a neophyte, ignorant of Islam, who found himself on a rooftop in that city before dawn, recording the call to prayer for a piece for BBC radio, and experiencing the extraordinary apprehension of a kind of empire of faith stretching from minaret to minaret around the globe. I did not return to Britain as a convert but rather, I found out later, as a travel writer.

  Becoming a travel writer is impossible: who else could be Dervla Murphy, Paddy Leigh Fermor, Eric Newby or Colin Thubron? Like faith it just happens to you. Unlike some flowerings of belief there is no one moment of conversion. Many prove resistant to the calling: Jan Morris refuses to be described, limitingly, as a travel writer. I felt the same way, with much less justification than Morris, for a while. I only realised I was tremendously proud to be of that church, among others, when Michael Jacobs died. I was the least of his many friends but he was a godfatherly figure and a hero to me. He taught by example that one is traveller, a listener, a talker, a gourmet, gourmand, drinker, teacher and learner, first; the writing is secondary. Michael was an expert art historian and writer who became a travel writer later. His faith or otherwise was none of my business but as a professional traveller he must have been asked many times what it was. I have a stock response. I tend to say:

  "I have prayed with Christians, Muslims and Jews. There is no difference."

  This is not as trite as it may seem. I really have prayed, to the extent that I am able, alongside the devout in Christian churches, on a mountainside in the Maghreb, in an east London synagogue, in the Temple of the Nine Planets in Assam, and daily, privately (nightly when in depression) to something, wherever I am.

  I am no scholar of faith. A lazy, slightly British, woolly and sentimental approach is mine, the devout or the learned might say. But my job has given me glimpses, many times, of inexplicable truths. By this I mean scraps and flashes of the signs, wonders and mysteries which the major religions either embrace as proof of their convictions or dismiss as pagan heresy. The easiest ways to dismiss wonder are to judge reports of it as hearsay, lies or both. You have to be there to know when they are neither.

  In northern Mozambique, as in Bushmanland, on the Grey Hill in Gwent, in the Serengeti, in Tibet, the Congo, the eastern Pacific and in many other places the scepticism journalism teaches, which I do practice and treasure, simply wilted.

  On the western shore of the Indian ocean there are beaches, too far south for the Kenyan tourist trade and too far north for the surfers and explorers who drive up from South Africa, where recent but already faded signs bear the words and names of great writers paying tribute to the place. Mia Cuoto, one of Mozambique's and Africa's most singular talents, you might expect. Henning Mankell was a surprise. There is little else there from outside: Portuguese relic churches and mansions, some cultivation. There I walked with a man discussing mermaids. Empua, he calls them. I thought I understood the metaphor: if you catch one and eat her tail it will grow back.

  "Ah! So she represents the sea?"

  "Empua," he repeated, patiently (I was taking notes). "I saw one at..."

  This was a real fisherman. Unlike sport fishermen and hobbyists such people never exaggerate except when it is understood that they are, for entertainment. He saw what he saw. Quite recently, he said, and not far away. He named the place. We were standing a sacred tree, an organism revered by his people over generations. For such a man to lie in such a place would have been unthinkable, an obscenity. I knew he spoke the truth. Was I a fool?

  On islands in the Kavango river which runs from the Caprivi strip down to the great Okavango delta live the Dikongoro. They are river dragons. If one sees you, you need not worry. But if you see a Dikongoro someone close to you and beloved will die. If you could see the whites of the eyes of one of the local men as he tells you this you would know, immediately, that the multiple reports he can supply of people known to him to whom this has happened are not untrue. Is this faith speaking, or reportage?

  In Brazzaville I met a witch (everyone who goes to Brazzaville meets a witch: it is one of the few facts all the literature about that city confirms). Because I bought her a beer before I knew who or what she was she gave me 'the protection of God for all your travels in Africa'. A few days later, entering the rainforest, we passed large and fearsome signs warning of Ebola ahead. DO NOT TOUCH ANY DEAD ANIMAL IN THIS FOREST they said in French. A day or so after that the vehicle in which I was travelling stopped. The driver and his mate dragged a very dead wild pig out from under a bush. They heaved it into the crammed back of the vehicle, where it rested on my feet, its hairs and cold flesh prickling my bare and scab-scratched shins. We stopped again at the next village where the pig was presented to a local butcher. He would not touch it. Ebola, he said, gesturing at the animal's armpits. And just then his little boy, gurgling with glee, dashed forward and grabbed the pig's forelegs, stretching out the corpse for his father's first incision.

  Something like a look flashed between the driver, the butcher and all of us in the back of the vehicle. We in the Landcruiser all knew we had ebola now, if the little boy had it. The father shrugged and went to work. I still cannot explain exactly what had just happened. You cannot banish ebola with a child's gurgle and a father's shrug, but something which went between us all when we saw the boy grab the corpse felt like a mighty surge of shared and furiously defiant faith. They shall not pass. The boy has not caught it. It does not exist. Was this mere hapless hope? Or the witch-given protection of God?

  Near Tsonkwe in eastern Namibia I watched a healer at the height of the revels pluck a glowing coal from the fire. He rolled it in his hands slowly, thoughtfully, before rejecting it. He chose a second. This was molten-bright, still blazing at one end. He handled it the same way, apparently unaware that anyone was watching. Physics says it melted the flesh off his hands and scorched their bones. Nothing happened. After a while - I estimated two minutes - the Bushman replaced the ember, still very bright. Then he healed a girl who had a bad shoulder by squeezing it. The strange thing, she said afterwards, was not that the shoulder was cured: she had expected that. The strange thing was that she had not told anyone that it had been giving her pain.

  I was professionally trained in UK law for journalists, the workings of UK local government and shorthand. I saw what I saw and took a contemporaneous note, valid in any UK court. I cannot explain what I saw. Or rather, I can, easily - but opinion is cheap and in this case irrelevant.

  Forgive one final anecdote. On the Grey Hill, in the Wentwood, as summer dusk congealed over the Welsh-English border, I lay with a BBC radio producer (Jeremy Grange, a zoologist and a man of faith) on the edge of a certain stone circle. I read in a low voice for the microphone from Arthur Machen's story The Shining Pyramid. Two friends, one a sceptic, have come to the same stone circle at dusk to witness something. To say Machen believed in fairies is to underserve Machen and fairies. He wrote about them with a transcendent passion. If you have seen the film Pan's Labyrinth you may know that it was based on a Machen story set in the Wentwood. At this point in The Shining Pyramid the sceptic is fed up. There are no fairies. What are we waiting for? he mutters.

  "Listen!" hisses the other, furiously, "Will - you - listen?"

  As I performed the line, quietly but emphatically, there was a beat such as an actor would take and then there was the most extraordinary noise, clearly caught on the tape. A churring, whirring, unearthly sound the like of which I had never heard shivered across the hillside.

  Jeremy and I looked at each other open-mouthed. It was as eerie as hell. My breath came back and I just about remembered not to swear. "A nightjar!" I gasped, "At the stone circle, right then - that - was - uncanny."

  It was only coincidence, of course. There are no fairies, no dragons, no witches, no mermaids, no miracles. The laws of physics are unbreakable; there are no thin spots in the veils between this world and the next: there are no veils, there is no next world. There are not more things in heaven and earth than there are in my philosophy, and my name is not the same as Hamlet's friend. I do believe, though, that what religion gains in reach and power it may lose sometimes in subtlety. And that line of John's, chapter fourteen verse two, seems open to serious underestimation:

  "In my father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you."

 

Horatio Clare 2016