Write time to look back at this year's letters

ENVIRONMENT: A frozen scene in Darlington during the cold snap in December - what will 2013 bring?

ENVIRONMENT: A frozen scene in Darlington during the cold snap in December - what will 2013 bring?

First published in Countryman's Diary by

AT the end of every year, it has been my practice to re-read the correspondence I have received from readers during the previous 12 months.

This year is no exception for there has been a wide variety of topics for discussion along with many points of interest that might have escaped me. I thank all who have taken the trouble to get in touch. Their efforts always help in the compilation of this weekly column.

Looking at the word-count of each article – around 1,200 words – and then multiplying it by the number of weeks in the year – 52 – we arrive at 62,400 words. This is around the length of a full-size book, perhaps a work of fiction or alternatively a non-fiction title relating to a specific subject. As I have been writing this weekly outpouring for 36 years, it is the equivalent of adding 36 books to my total.

However, the contents of this weekly column do not lend themselves to the format of a book. For one thing, they are too varied and for another, they chronicle a constantly changing scene that is due to the vagaries of nature and wildlife. Not only that, columns of this kind are now competing with the internet and its amazing variety of subject matter plus a huge library of information that is so readily available.

On occasions, I am asked whether I still use pen and ink for my drafts but the answer is no. I write this column directly onto a computer and as I am a touch-typist, I can rattle across the keyboard, making corrections as I proceed. With such a marvellous machine at my disposal, additions and deletions are easy to achieve. I can switch paragraphs around in seconds if I am not happy with them and can store valuable records of facts that come my way.

This column is submitted by email, a speedy method which means it can be entered directly into the newspaper’s systems for the necessary processing, editing and selection of illustrations. From the gist of some of my correspondence, it seems that a few readers think I work in the D&S Times office in Darlington. I don’t. I work from home about 40 miles from Darlington.

Being an author is a full-time job. I don’t sit staring into space seeking ideas while sipping champagne.

Like most professional writers, I work from 9am until 5pm each weekday with breaks for morning coffee, lunch and an afternoon teabreak.

My wife looks after our routine business matters such as dealing with telephone callers, keeping records for the tax man and VAT returns, doing some of my research, maintaining my website and keeping a library of photographs and so on. It is a busy but self-disciplined life which we totally enjoy.

When I began this column, I used an ancient LC Smith upright typewriter and for my file copies I relied upon carbon paper; I also had a very effective rubber to correct errors, consequently the compilation of my weekly piece required a great deal of concentration and skill. It continues to make those demands and although I still rely on my own very comprehensive filing system and library of obscure facts, I find myself making an increasing number of visits to the internet for added information.

In answer to those who ask if I write in pen and ink, the answer is that when I am amending my computer- printed book drafts, I print them on paper and then edit them with pen and ink. In fact, only last week I bought myself a new bottle of black ink and a new fountain pen because I find that means of editing books effective and relaxing.

When buying that bottle, I made sure I bought some clean fresh blotting paper too – and yes, such things are still available!

As this column forms a very small part of my overall output, I hope these few notes will have helped some correspondents understand how I function, so now I’ll refer to other letters I received this year.

One very noticeable trend is that most have arrived via email. Now and again, there will be a letter in an envelope sent via the newspaper’s office; I don’t publicise my home address because there are some people who arrive unannounced and expect me to miss a deadline to listen to their woeful attempts at becoming a writer.

So which topics have attracted the most correspondence this year? It appears there is an increasing interest in wild birds and this might be due to the variety of nature programmes on TV, or to the proliferation of protected sites where birds can be observed. Most of us are becoming more aware of wild birds, especially their plight in winter when food and shelter are in short supply. Many of us attract wild birds to our gardens by placing out food and this has led to efforts at identifying them.

Only this morning before writing these notes, I noticed in our heavily frosted garden a handsome cock pheasant whom we call Ferdinand for he is a regular visitor. The others included blue tits, great tits, a coal tit, six long-tailed tits, a robin, a couple of blackbirds, a hedge accentor, a female greenfinch, a male chaffinch, a great spotted woodpecker and a magpie. Also, there was a large hawk-like bird that flew slowly over the house one afternoon but I couldn’t identify it – but we do get buzzards in our skies these days. However, it wasn’t a buzzard but I did wonder whether it was a male hen harrier.

Among the birds mentioned by correspondents this year have been a merganser, golden plovers, green plovers (peewits), various species of duck, blue tits, chaffinches, cuckoos, reed buntings, tree sparrows and the lack of house sparrows.

Several correspondents have commented on items of folklore, one being the story of the felon sow of Rokeby with others providing details of the lore surrounding oak trees, parsley, wych elms, cockstrides and the Leyburn Shawl.

There is always an interest in place-names and their origins, in this case being centred on Bedale, although I also received notes about Gunnerside, Thirsk, Helperby- Brafferton and Aysgarth, not forgetting the Lyke Wake Dirge.

All these letters highlight the broad interests of our readers and once more, I thank them for their contribution to the aims of this weekly column. WE are now hurtling into 2013 and I think the outgoing year has been exceptional due to the wonderful Olympic Games that we hosted, plus the addition of the jubilee celebrations for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In all sorts of ways it was a memorable and happy time in our history and for that we should be thankful. Now, as we head into 2013, we will be wondering what the coming 12 months have in store, both politically and personally.

It might be prudent to remember that today is Holy Innocents’ Day when mass is celebrated in memory of the children who were slaughtered by King Herod as he hunted the infant Jesus. This is a means of reminding us that this is a time to remember all vulnerable people, old and young, wherever or whoever they may be.

With those thoughts in mind, we can still enjoy the celebrations that will soon follow to help the final days of the old year to depart in peace. In its place, we will welcome 2013 in the hope that it will increase our sense of well-being and contentment, both for ourselves and for others.

I wish all readers a very happy and successful New Year.


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