To the south, the sea.
Fishbourne itself is – and was then – a modest, unassuming village, a wonderful place to be a child. A Roman Palace, discovered and excavated in the 1970s, a modest nineteenth century church – extended from its medieval origins, though the marks of pilgrims travelling to visit the shrine of St Richard of Chichester can still be seen scratched into the stone on the north-west side of the church; the Old Toll House on the outskirts of the village and the turnpike.
But what mattered most was the water and the shore. Not the yellow sands of the Witterings or Bognor Regis, but the muddy, tidal estuary of Fishbourne Marshes. Feeding the ducks on the Mill Pond, playing hide-and-seek in the reed-mace, sitting on the old flint sea wall and watching the tide come in. Picking my way across Fishbourne Creek at lowest tide, over the remains of the Old Salt Mill in the centre of the Channel, an explorer in a blue cagoule and black gum boots. In summer, lying on my back in the long grass and imagining myself as Catherine Earnshaw in the harsh Yorkshire Moors between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.
In those slow, gentle days of the 1970s, my favourite family outing was to an astonishing and magnificently odd museum of taxidermy in neighbouring Arundel: Walter Potter’s Museum of Curiosities. Walking down the High Street from the Castle, past the sweet shop on the right, to the small, half-timbered building on the left at the bottom of the hill.
Inside, every inch of space packed with curios and oddities – an iron man trap, a clapper from a Sussex bell, a glass jar containing Siamese twin pigs, their tiny features squashed, a mummified hand and a stuffed robin nesting in a kettle. A glorious kaleidoscope of colour and feather and fur.
But what captured my heart – and holds it still – were the display cases filled with stuffed birds and animals, each telling a story: the guinea pigs’ cricket match, the score frozen forever at 189 for 7, and each musician, in the accompanying band, holding a silver trumpet or a slide trombone; the kitten’s tea party, complete with doll’s house chairs, blue and white porcelain crockery and a silver tea pot, chicken and cake moulded from paste and glue.
My favourite was ‘The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin’, inspired by the folk song. Nearly one hundred birds – all the birds of the air, as the chorus goes – in an English country churchyard: bullfinch and robin, red-backed shrike, hawfinch and bunting, the sparrow with his bow and arrow. Old tombstones and disinterred bones, sepulchres and a tiny blue coffin, a dish of blood. Every verse from the nursery rhyme portrayed inside the case. An owl with white and gold feathers digging the grave with his pick and his shovel. A grieving lark with a black sash around its neck.
The Museum closed, moved to Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, then tragically was sold off piecemeal in 2003. I’ve not seen any of the tableaux for thirty-five years – longer – but I’ve never forgotten them. I can picture those kittens now, those birds ‘a-sighing and a-sobbing’, those drunken rats in their drinking den. And my fascination – obsession – with taxidermy has never faded.
A few months into writing The Taxidermist’s Daughter, I realised that I would have to try my hand at experiencing taxidermy for myself, first hand. I enjoy research – ‘book’ research, as I think of it, which involves museums and libraries and, for The Taxidermist’s Daughter, poring over old maps in the West Sussex Record Office, reading back editions of the local newspaper, researching the history of the West Sussex County Asylum, Graylingwell Hospital. Out of this kind of research, come nuggets of information: for example, that Graylingwell Farmhouse, where in the early 20th century the fee-paying patients were housed, had been the childhood home of the novelist Anna Sewell, of Black Beauty fame. I also love what I think of as the ‘physical’ research of a novel; the walking in the landscape about which one is writing, the climbing the steps on the sea wall, the measuring of distances between one location and another. For Labyrinth, I was taught how to wield a battle sword (very heavy), for Sepulchre, how to read Tarot cards, and for Citadel, to fire a pistol (I was a terrible shot, but not so bad with a rifle . . . )
Finally, I accepted that I could not write a novel with a taxidermist as a lead character without, at least, engaging with the basics. I am vegetarian, and rather squeamish, but it was an invaluable experience. The skill of it is astonishing, the delicate and meticulous way in which a bird needs to be prepared. No short cuts, extraordinary concentration. Also, the beauty of it became clear. The way in which a bird is given a new kind of life through the process. I have bought my own (and first) piece of taxidermy now, a Crow I’ve named Connie who sits, watching me, from the bookcase in my study.
Looking back, I can see the roots of becoming a writer – the combination of landscape and history and storytelling – lie absolutely in that childhood, in that particular place and at that particular time. But I had to go away from home, first, to learn how to be a novelist, to learn how to put a real place on paper, before I could write about home.
I realise, too, that I had to go away from home to learn how to be free to be a writer. At home in Sussex, I was always someone’s old school friend, someone’s sister, someone’s daughter, someone’s Mum, someone’s wife. In Carcassonne – the inspiration for my novels Labyrinth, Sepulchre, Citadel, The Winter Ghosts and several short stories – I could be a writer first and foremost. Inspired by the history and the staggering beauty of the landscape of the Languedoc, I took Willa Cather’s advice to heart – ‘Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet’ – and I began to write.
I’ve written about Fishbourne once before, a short story called ‘The Revenant’. I realise now, it was a curtain-raiser to attempting to put onto paper, the land with which I have the strongest connection. It’s never a question of simply reporting a place or using a physical landscape merely as a back-drop to a story. But, rather, about the emotions that a place engenders and the memory of those emotions. Out of that, comes a novel, rather than a piece of reportage or life writing. I tiptoed a little closer to writing about home with another short story in that same collection*, ‘The Ghost of Christmas Past’, which is set in Chichester.
Finally, some twenty-five years after first setting foot in Carcassonne – and hundreds of thousands of words later – I was ready to write a full-length novel set at home. Not a piece of life writing or memoir, but an imagined story, set in an imagined historic landscape: it’s 1912, not 2014 and while the reedmace and the estuary and the unchanging Sussex sky are constants, Blackthorn House, Slay Lodge and Themis Cottage are not.
Kate Mosse Chichester (near Fishbourne . . . ) July 2014