Wednesday 17 March 2010

Writing's a Beach - Miriam Halahmy

My parents moved to Hayling Island, opposite the Isle of Wight in 1971 during my first year at college. They bought a house a minute's walk from the beach at Sandy Point, right down the bottom of the Island where a well known yacht club is situated. They lived on Hayling for over twenty years and my brothers and I and our families all came to love this quiet little backwater. Hayling Island is completely flat, twenty five miles square and before the steam train, the Hayling Billy was built, the only way to reach the Island was by boat.

Hayling Island has been settled since the Iron Age and there are wonderful chalk and flint beds around the site of the old oyster beds. Oysters were once a big industry on the Island.
There was also another way to reach the Island at low tide before the bridge was built and that was on the Wadeway. The Wadeway is believed to be a thousand years old and is a rocky footpath which has been laid out at the top of the Island right across the treacherous mudflats to the mainland. You can't use it now because the channel has been widened in the centre for sailing. I've tried walking along the top end which is uncovered at low tide but its incredibly slippery and if you slip into the mud you can sink up to your waist. The coastguards have to rescue one or two people a year.

You can just make out the line of the Wadeway in this photo which also shows the old mill and the Royal Oak pub on the mainland, facing out into Langstone Harbour towards the Island. Nevil Shute wrote one of his novels while staying in the mill and swans and ducks swim about in the sea and on the ponds behind it. Smuggling was rife around the Island in the eighteenth century and local gossip claims there was once a smugglers' tunnel between the mill and the pub. But its unlikely as the sea would have flooded it.

My life has been linked to Hayling Island for over thirty years and therefore I decided to set a children's novel on the Island. I was walking on the beach one day and wondered what would happen if a couple of kids found an illegal immigrant washed up on the beach. I had just had a short story accepted by Tony Bradman for his anthology, Give me Shelter, about child asylum seekers. My story, Samir Hakkim's Healthy Eating Diary focused on a ten year old boy smuggled out of Saddam Hussein's Iraq to save his life. Samir finds himself abandoned at Heathrow airport by his escort, a regular occurrence for unaccompanied child asylum seekers and taken into care. I have worked with refugees and asylum seekers all of my working life, first as a teacher in London schools and then as a writer with Exiled Writers' Ink!, the Medical Foundation and PEN. There seemed to be much more to say about Samir than I could write in a short story. So I picked him up four years later, now aged fourteen. Walking on the beach on Hayling with his friend, Alix, they come across Mohammed,thrown out of his smugglers' boat and nearly dying of cold. Samir persuades Alix to help him hide Mohammed to save him from being deported. My novel, HIDDEN, will be published by Meadowside Books, March 2011.

But I loved writing about Hayling Island so much there are now three books in the cycle. A minor character in the first book becomes the major character in the second book and so on. I am writing the third book now and have decided to set it around the old oyster beds. These have become absolute havens for the huge range of bird life which the Island hosts. When I was there last Saturday the terns and gulls were kicking up a terrible row as they jostled for nesting rights. The Brent Geese who come every winter from the Arctic Circle were bobbing about on the sea, diving for the eel grass under the water and boats were scudding about across the Solent.

Hayling Island is a perfect setting and coming back to the Island, walking the beaches, taking photos and writing in my notebook,has given me a whole new world of writing which I know I will return to again and again.


The wind, the greydeep sea.
Gulls, shots of white light
meeting still water
hunt for fish.

She is digging now
heaping sandcastles expertly in a line,
pointed rainhood, yellow spade.

She is the relief
on the flat edge of loveliness
dimenstion on the straight line of content.

She fills the space between
horizons, empty days.
"Watch me mummy,"
keeps at bay
the fierce dogs of night
snapping in my face.

(c) Miriam Halahmy

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Brian Keaney said...

I love the poem. I can see that child so clearly.

Mary Hoffman said...

When I was at school a million years ago I had a very good friend whose parents had a house on Hayling Island where I used to go and stay.

They were called Shead. Now my friend (now Herman) lives there permanently - in a different house.

It was always magical for me.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A lovely post Miriam. I think as writers we internalise much of our landscape and I can understand why your island is now such a well-spring. Looking forward to reading Hidden... which is a great title... full of the atmospheric layers that come from living close to the sea.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Thanks for your comments folks and Mary, so glad to hear you know someone from the Island.

Nick Cross said...

So lovely to have a really strong location that you know passionately and then to write about that. Sigh. Perhaps this explains why my characters are always adrift in an alien environment (searches for therapist's phone number)

Good luck with the book!