Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Goatsucker Harvest: "So, what's a Goatsucker, when it's at home?"

Nightjar, Goatsucker, or Fern-Owl, Caprimulgus europaeus (Lithograph from Painting by J G Keulemans in 'Coloured Figures of the birds of the British  Islands 1885-1897) 
"Why "Goatsucker Harvest"?"

"Such an intriguing title - can't wait to read it!"

"What's a Goatsucker, when it's at home?"

"I've got to ask....'Goatsucker Harvest'... very unusual to say the least, where did it come from!!!!???"

This question's the one I get asked the most when people hear the title of my novel.

So here's the lowdown!

The honest answer is the title itself is straight out of my imagination. I love what it makes me think and feel, about a dusky world out on the peatlands and lowland moors near my ancestral home in South Yorkshire, where the Nightjars fly, chirring their unearthly song and clapping their wings in the twlight, laying their eggs in the summer under the full moon.

I wonder if anyone else recalls a local programme on TV a few years ago in Yorkshire, with Look North weatherman, Paul Hudson, flying in a microlite to discover the The Seven Natural Wonders of Yorkshire & Lincolnshire ? Paul explored local treasures like Malham Cove, Hornsea Mere, Spurn Point and the bird-thronged cliffs at Flamborough (setting for my next novel, "The Clockwork Climmer.").

But what caught my imagination most of all, was his visit to Thorne & Hatfield Moors, part of the Humberhead Levels and the largest area of lowland peat bog in Britain. There Paul was shown how it is possible to stand very still on the Moors in the dusk of evening, clapping your hands above your head, to imitate the sound of the Nightjar's wing-claps. If you are very fortunate, a real life Nightjar will come out of the gloom and fly over your head, emitting its eerie, almost other-worldly cry, so distinctive and unlike any other local bird.

Nightjars chirring at dusk in this YouTube video

That image stuck with me,  finding its way into the story, mixed with so many other ideas from the years I'd spent walking the land around Thorne, Hatfield Woodhouse, Stainforth, Fishlake, Moorends, Auckley, Blaxton, Finningley and that part of Doncaster that in places, seems to have an alien microclimate and history all of its own. I'd always been fascinated not just by the lives of my own ancestors in these parts, but by the geography, history, flora and fauna of the places they had called home.

So this inspired the setting for "Goatsucker Harvest", with Bram a central figure, unlocking the mysteries of these hidden worlds with his sensitivity and family connections as marshman, decoyman and pinder near Turbary Nab (in the real world, Fishlake Nab was an anchor for the imaginary topography of the landscapes painted in the novel). Bram alone has the local knowledge of the wildfowl, plants and earth secrets with which Thirza becomes involved.

European Nightjar from the Crossley ID Guide Britain & Europe

The Nightjar has many folk names, including Goatsucker, because people used to think its nocturnal habits included sucking the udders of goats dry in the night. The milk connection is also echoed in one of its other nicknames "Churn-Owl", or "Fern Owl" for its chosen habitat among the bracken. The Nightjar features in the book in several forms, both real and mechanical. It becomes significant as the story unfolds. The atmosphere of the book will draw you into this uncanny world as soon as you set foot there.

I also interwove the other understanding of "Goatsucker" into my tale. In folklore originating in the Americas, there is belief in sightings of a strange monstrous creature, the size of a small bear, that is supposed, according to various reports, to have the habit of attacking livestock and sucking their blood. Events in the book raise the hackles of the inhabitants of Turbary Nab, wondering whether such things might be true.

So, that's Goatsucker. But "Harvest"?

I chose "Harvest," as the novel's action leads up to a dramatic climax that happens on the day of the village harvest festival in early October. Harvest also refers to the way in which seeds sown, actions and intentions for good or ill, flower and fruit into a harvest of consequences, cause and effect, a final outcome for the different characters. Often quite a different "harvest" from the one they anticipated or hoped for.

Goatsucker Harvest.

But when the sickle falls, will the reaping be relief or regret?

Corn field near Thorne Moors

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