The Tongues of Men

A novel in redraft by Gabriel Smy

Is the country better for writing?

And stepping westward seemed to be
A kind of heavenly destiny.
– William Wordsworth, ‘Stepping Westward’

At the end of July we’re moving to the county where Henry Fielding was born and where Chaucer worked as a forester whilst writing The Canterbury Tales (apparently). It is the county in which Thomas Hardy dwelt for a time, where Arthur C. Clarke grew up, where John Steinbeck stayed to research and where T.S. Eliot chose to have his ashes interred. More recently, it is where Terry Pratchett dreamt up Discworld, where John Le CarrĂ© resided and where Fay Weldon and Charlotte Bingham are united in prolificacy, if not in style.

Specifically, we're heading to the hills and moors where Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was penned, where his friend Wordsworth moped about for a year, in the wild country of Lorna Doone.

We have just been filmed for a TV property show about the move (on your telly in December) in which the storyline of ‘writer moving to country for inspiration’ will play a part.

It’s a pervasive myth, that the countryside is more inspiring for writing. I adore the graphic novel Tamara Drewe, with its old Dorset guest home packed full of frustrated novelists retreating to the pastoral to find the space to work.

But is the country really a better place to get writing done?

The occasions on which I've written productively in remote places in the past owe a lot to being away: away from family and work life, with nothing else to think about. This time the crew are coming too. I’ll be working still, with a much longer commute. There'll be all the resettling of kids into schools and possibly all the work involved in modernising a historic building.

It certainly won’t be a retreat. The first time that we have to drain the septic tank will put paid to any romantic notions of the rural writing life.

As for whether or not it is a more inspiring setting, it is said that some authors face the window and some face the wall. There are those for whom a landscape stirs creative thoughts and those for whom it distracts. Looking out at the fields does not make me want to write: it makes me want to go out in the fields. The inspiration for my books is inside me. Writing needs no external vista: it is more the discipline of shutting out the view to single-mindedly type the internal ideas out.

More to the point, for an urban novel you're probably better off in a city. And if you get energy from interacting with people and culture and ideas then you need to be around those too.

Plus there are the issues of improving as an author and getting published. Isolation is good for neither. In Cambridge I have been part of a writing group that has been critical for my novel in at least two positive senses of that word.

Of course, there is the Internet for research and culture and connection to other writers – as long as you can get it in your village. Practical considerations such as broadband access and the temperature of the room will have far more influence over my productivity than the scenic location. The discipline of creative writing is largely a practical one: arranging a warm, quiet, uninterrupted space in which to tap the keys.

On the flip side, as long as the practicalities are available, space is one thing that the country move will deliver in spades. I’m ridiculously excited about having my own study or shed to make into the perfect creative den (facing the wall, not the window).

And there’s more to the countryside than that. I find a pastoral setting the perfect place to clear my head and make good decisions. Writing is writing wherever you do it but I’m looking forward to cultivating a clear and focused mind for the work at hand.

Above all, it's an exhilarating move all round; a new chapter of life after 17 years in a university city. It might not be the dream ticket that country life is often romantically conceived to be, but change and a new adventure are good.

Wordsworth did the same, living in Somerset for a time after studying in Cambridge. And it’s his ‘Stepping Westward’ that's rattling round my head while we plan this move.

Yet who would stop, or fear to advance,
Though home or shelter he had none,
With such a sky to lead him on?


Swimming with dolphins in Akaroa

A final post from the New Zealand journal. This is where we were a year ago.

Nothing prepares us for our first sight of Akaroa’s tiffany blue harbour. We’ve been driving across Canterbury Plain, sparsely populated, each creek that we cross named on a yellow sign. Our spirits lift as we begin to climb into the volcanic round of mountains. Suddenly the vista opens out: green brown hills dipping their limbs into a long lagoon, its many bays like petals of a rare blue flower.

Akaroa harbour

We stop the car. Photograph. Drive round the corner and stop again. Photograph. Eventually we realise that the view is not going to go away. The harbour is gorgeous at every turn. It is deep, with a mouth gulping at the Pacific. The French originally used it as whale nursery.

We hadn’t expected the water in New Zealand to be so bright. It’s like the Indian Ocean filling Norwegian fjords. The boys lob stones into the shallows while we sit spellbound by the bay. Later, we paddle off the grey volcanic beaches.

Duvauchelle Bay at the top of Akaroa harbour

We’re here to swim with Hector’s dolphins. It’s hard to know what to expect. This is no Sea World. We’ll be out on the edge of the open sea, waiting for the wild creatures, the smallest and rarest of their family, to come by. The voyage out is just gorgeous. The mountains peel back on either side as our boat ploughs a wake through the cerulean depths. The simple joy of piloting these waters under a warm sun in a flawless sky is worth the trip alone.

Suited and booted

Nevertheless, all eyes are peeled for a glimpse of distinctly semi-circular dorsal fin. After a couple of false alarms, a pair is seen at a distance. The captain nears the dolphins and cuts the engines, but they swim off. The animals are wild and there is no guarantee that they will be interested in socialising. Another group seems friendlier, but by the time we lower into the water, they too disappear. We’ve been told the water is nippy, and New Zealanders and Americans in the party complain about the cold. They’ve obviously never swum in the North Sea. In fact it’s relatively mild. The cool water creeps inside our wetsuits in sweet contrast to the beating sun.

Hector's dolphins

We return to the boat and move further towards the open ocean. Turn right, and it’s non-stop to Antarctica; left, and you’ll be on course for Chile. A more engaging pod is found, and we drop off the back of the vessel again. Floating is easy in the extra thick suits, and we make noises to get the dolphins curious. Three of four times they swim through our midst, ghostly white and only an arm’s span away. Then they’re done. So is Theo: despite his double layers, he is shivering. Back on board we drink hot chocolate and make our way towards Akaroa.

On the jetty, we hear that the other group had half a dozen dolphins round them at all times. One man calls it 'life-changing'. Our encounter was more fleeting, and we get given a partial refund. But we would have paid in full to see the creatures even at a distance, and to ride in the breeze and warm sun through that sumptuous, sparkling lagoon.

Beautiful day


The power of the physical book

Books have power.

Not as much as stories. Stories predate books, and will outlive them too. The most important thing about the inevitable decline of books is that stories continue to be told, in whatever form keeps them alive, in the greatest number of minds. I don’t have a book fetish.

But there is no doubt that the physical book – the bound paper artefact – has power.

Today my photo book arrived. It tells the story of an adventure that my wife, four kids and I had in New Zealand. It tells it in photographs that I already posted on Flickr, and in words that I have already published on my blog. It goes into only a tiny amount of the detail we have related to our friends over dinner.

And yet.

New Zealand photo book

And yet, it is a beautiful thing to behold. It is a beautiful thing to hold. It has weight, and sheen, and smell. I can flick through it, jump backwards and forwards among the pages, pass it to another person and watch her smile. I can crease it at my favourite pages, display it proudly on my bookshelf, write ‘Happy Birthday’ to my wife in the front. I can glimpse it in the corner and think, ‘there’s a thing that I made.’

I can’t imagine my children throwing this one away, as they clear out the attic when my wife and I are dead. They’ll flick through the pages too, and wonder at their young selves, and show their own offspring the time that Grandad marched them in the rain to see their first glacier.

Beyond that, who knows? But books have power, far more than the sum of the words within.


Film diary 2012

Remember all that sport last year? All that winning? I blame it for the lower tally of films watched, especially as we kept the TV licence after the Olympics. Oh look, Scream I/II/III is on again!

Anyway, I still saw a few. 2012 was the year that Almodovar had a dip in form (The Skin I Live In) whereas Woody Allen finally got one right (Midnight in Paris). Wes Anderson wonderfully became more of what he already was (Moonrise Kingdom), but so did Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). I think I've finally fallen out of love with Herzog altogether.

Classic films are of course classic (Sunset Boulevard, On the Waterfront, Notorious, Psycho) and Tokyo Story is not the best film ever made. It's up there though. For something entirely different, try My Summer of Love, Bombay Beach, Arrietty or Morvern Callar.

Twitter film reviews 2012

*****Outstanding ****Excellent ***Good
**Okay *Poor 0–Atrocious

My Summer of Love (Pawlikowski 2004)**** Pitch perfect teen angst & eroticism in a bored Yorkshire village, tongues-speaking nutters & all.

Sunset Boulevard (Wilder 1950)***** Engaging story, glorious lead, cheesy noirish script & sharp shooting justify Hollywood parody classic.

On The Waterfront (Kazan 1954)***** So that's what all the Marlon Brando fuss is about. Plus: Best. Priest. Ever.

Harry Potter 7/1 (Yates 2010)*** Series gets grown up acting, cinematography and CGI. Also gets moping and ennui: biding time before pt 2.

Harry Potter 7/2 (Yates 2011)**** Sweeping, dramatic, with outstanding effects intrepid story. Everything matures into a satisfying end.

Hannah Her Sisters (Allen 1986)**** Devastatingly acute relationship drama mixed with vintage comedy script. Moving, funny, thoughtful.

Intolerable Cruelty (Coen, 2003)*** Repeated views unlock the quirky genius hidden in mainstream romcom. Or maybe I just heart the Coens too much.

The Cat in the Hat (Welch 2003)*** 1-yr-old's fave film. On constantly. Want to hate but Mike Myers carries it and we're all quoting it.

Flags of Our Fathers (Eastwood 06)**** A little obvious, but true WW2 story w/ strong aesthetic, grown-up structure & visceral authenticity.

Midnight in Paris (Allen 2011)**** That's more like it, Woody. Perky Paris stages whimsical tale about nostalgia living in the present.

Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood 2006)**** Same battle, different war. Moving stories of childlike Japanese soldier and his General in WWII.

Also rewatched A Serious Man at the weekend. I love the Coen tropes, the sheer craftsmanship, and the repeated 'it's just a story'.

Oranges and Sunshine (Loach, 2010)*** Emily Watson is intense in open ended, natural story about forcible migration of kids to Australia.

With all the great films available on the long haul flight, I ended up watching The Hangover, I and II.

Tokyo Story (Ozu 1953)***** Best film ever made? Not for me; but a gentle, understated masterpiece about parents and their adult children.

Also, The Royal Tenenbaums. Reader, I watched it again.

Bombay Beach (Har'el 2011)**** Surreal, choreographed documentary about 3 poor American lives. Beautiful, clipped, hope & despair together.

@geoffstevenson They loved [Lord of the Rings I]. Bit plot heavy, but plenty of cool monsters. Had to keep hiding Atty behind the fridge though.

The Skin I Live In (Almodovar 11)** The usual craft and a twisted sexual plot, but pushed too far. Anti-erotic, disconcerting, unrewarding.

Notorious (Hitchcock 1946)***** A perfect film.

Shadowlands (Attenborough 1993)**** Stuffy academia & pop theology of CS Lewis stripped away to leave a simple, devastating love story.

The Inbetweeners (Palmer 2011)** Embarrasing teen boy jokes, hilarious on TV, feel thin in feature length. Series has run its course?

3:10 to Yuma (Mangold 2007)**** Post-Unforgiven yet still a true Western. Magnificent leads from Crowe & Bale, do justice to superb writing.

Psycho (Hitchcock 1960)***** Deserves its reputation as a defining moment in cinema. One of Hitch's best. And terrifying.

District 9 (Blomkamp 2009)**** Gory apartheid with aliens. Extraordinarily literal and uncomfortable. Overwritten but superbly acted.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Almodovar 1988)***** Hilarious Spanish farce involving a drug laced gazpacho.

Arrietty (Yonebayashi 2010)**** Straight telling of The Borrowers, with such tranquil mise en scene and music it's an indulgence.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)***** Pure essence of Wes Anderson. Emotionally troubled kids, depressed adults, lots of cub scouts. Very very funny.

The Illusionist (Chomet 2010)*** 50s Edinburgh, beautifully drawn. Gentle story belies source (unproduced Tati script) & sensitive subject.

Morvern Callar (Ramsay 2002)**** Poignant study of childlikeness, of life lived in the moment. Tactile like Ratcatcher, but more mesmeric.

La Vie En Rose (Dahan 2007)*** Engrossing Edith Piaf bio. Cotillard deserved best actress. Overdoes timeline jumps though.

Shallow Grave (Boyle 1994)*** Bold debut with brash performances from young stars. Influential – but why didn't they just split the money?

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog 2010)** The cave paintings are bewitching. The documentary is short, basic, laced with director's nonsense.

The Social Network (Fincher 2010)**** If only real software was as sexy as a Sorkin screenplay.

Hugo (Scorcese 2011)*** Magic for the cineaste, but slow, sentimental and over CGI-ed. Perhaps the key is to see it in 3D in the cinema.

Mr Poppers Penguins (Waters 2011)** Jim Carrey with penguins. Bit hard to care about this one. Alludes to much better films than itself.

The Nutcracker in 3D (Konchalovskiy 2009)** Magical Viennese start dissolves surreally into Turturro's rat king & Tim Rice's lyrics. Panned.

Valiant (Disney 2005)* Pre-Toy Story animation despite coming a decade later. Gervais is offputting, even/especially as a dirty pigeon.

Whale Rider (Caro 2002)**** Idiomatic and understated Maori tale, simmering with universal emotion.

Taking of Pelham 123 (Scott 2009)** Yawn. A good idea dropped from the hands of Travolta's terrible generic mad villain.

Previous years:
2011 film reviews
2010 film reviews
2009 film diary
2008 film diary
2007 film diary

I'm always open for what to watch next – tell me on Twitter.


Annus (partim) horribilis

I’ve had better years than 2012. Apart from an amazing adventure in New Zealand back in April, which was unforgettably exciting, it has rained more often than not, I’ve made little headway on the second draft of the novel, and I’ve seen the inside of hospitals and clinics more these three months than the preceding three decades combined.

In October I started struggling to cycle and to concentrate, and my heart was beating fast. The GP thought it must be asthma. My being out of breath got so bad that Mary insisted I phone the emergency doctor straight away. The nurse who called back said, “I can hear you’re out of breath – what have you just done?” When I told her I had only stood up to answer the phone, she arranged my first ever trip in an ambulance.

I had pulmonary emboli – multiple blood clots in both lungs. Often clots are only found postmortem, having caused fatal heart attacks or strokes. I was lucky not to have died. Apparently I have a strong heart. It’s rare for a 35-year old to suffer clots, and my age is probably one of the reasons I’m still alive.

Me, with pulmonary emboli, earlier

The strangest part of the condition is that we couldn’t identify a cause. No major injury or (recent) long haul flying, no history of embolism in the family. In May, when I’m off the anticoagulants, I’ll be tested for hereditary factors that may have allowed the clotting, perhaps needing the medicine for life. If it isn’t genetic, then the worry is that the same situation could arise again.

The hardest part has been the recovery – the grey area between serious illness and fitness. In hospital you know where you stand, or lie, with oxygen tubes and heart monitors and 17 syringes of your blood taken at once. And at some point in the future, I’ll be back on my bike, racing up Histon Road to the office, and throwing the children in the air when I get home.

But in between? In between is tricky.

You can’t magic blood clots away. Anticoagulants prevent any new clots forming and allow existing clots to naturally dissolve. But that takes time. Months, in fact. Plus my heart and lungs have taken one hell of a beating, and need time to repair. After a few fatigued weeks I pitched up to the office, only to end up back at the doctor with wildly irregular heartbeats. They were benign – but a wake up call that my major organs were trying to get better and I wasn’t giving them a decent break.

It’s frustrating. Especially when, having rested, I feel bright, only to get exhausted a day after doing normal things again. I find it hard to do nothing when I’m feeling okay in the moment. I’ve tidied every cupboard in the house. Some pulmonary embolism survivors take 18 months to recover. I’m not up for that.

It might be denial but I’ve never felt ill in myself, that is, my body has been struggling but I’ve felt perfectly well inside. Only on the first night in hospital did I consider that I might be dying – I thought how much better it would be to die now and have people say, “he could have been such an amazing novelist!” than to reach old age and prove without doubt that I’m not – although I did think how awful it would be for Mary. But since that night, and the disgusting hospital breakfast that followed, I have considered myself to be basically okay and waiting for normal life to resume.

I wish it would come quicker. I don’t feel like a lucky survivor. I feel on hold, annoyed at all this unexpected inconvenience. I can’t drink over Christmas or even next Easter, on holiday with friends. I haven’t worked a full week yet. I’ve had to cancel things I really wanted to do – from applying to a Creative Writing course and attending a writers’ workshop to running some fun new training for Fluent. I’ve had plenty of time off but been unable to write. We’re in Snowdonia at Christmas but I won’t be climbing any hills. And my wife is still having to do most of the work at home.

Mary has been incredible; quite apart from saving my life in the first place by making me phone the doctor (I’m not even the first person in the family for whom she has done that). Colleagues, friends and family have been tremendously supportive. I’m grateful for all of them, and for the myriad blessings of which my life is made – energetic children, living in Cambridge, Artificial Eye DVDs, friends releasing poetry collections and albums, cooking and eating fresh mushroom soup.

But I’m ready to feel completely better. So I’m writing off the second half of 2012, doing very little over Christmas, and hoping to hit January with more gusto. Here’s to more energy, more writing, more fun. I’m wishing you all what I want for myself – a happy new year.


Clotted history

Some of you will know that back in October I was taken ill with pulmonary emboli. At the time I wrote an account of the first few hours in hospital.

The man with the thick Indian accent returns to my bedside.
‘There is no chickin alfurno,’ he says. ‘You want vegetarian sausage?’
‘What else is there?’
He checks his sheet and says something. I feel terrible asking him to repeat it but I really can’t unpick what he said.
‘Collillower pasda,’ he says.
‘No meat on the menu?’
‘No meat.’
We smile at each other. My smile has an edge that says ‘I need meat’. He says something about the other menu, something inscrutable that ends roastchickin-stuffing.
‘Yes, that,’ I say, as firmly as I can.
Since coming onto the ward no one has told me anything apart from what is on the menu. The porter dropped me off by the bed and since then I have sat on it. I don’t know where the toilets are, if I’m allowed to unplug the oxygen should I want to visit them, where the water is if I’m thirsty, what is going to happen next. There is a thermometer cap in one of my shoes.
Eventually a nurse, also with an Indian accent, sits by the bed.
‘Do you live in house, flat?’
This question has been posed all around the ward. Every other patient has been asked it; some several times.
‘A house,’ I say.
This proves to be the easiest answer to an otherwise bizarre questionnaire. How much do I drink? My standard answer is in average units a week. But that confuses the nurse. I look at the questionnaire. She has misunderstood it. ‘The question is “how often does the patient drink more than eight drinks in one session?”’ I say. ‘And the answer is: not very often.’
My wife points out, ‘It says half a pint is one drink.’
Not where I come from.
‘Are other people worried about you?’ asks the nurse.
‘They would be if I drank half pints.’
In the neighbouring bed an old man with horribly bruised shins is being shouted at in an Indian accent by a doctor.
‘How do you like to call you?’
‘Well, my name is Joseph’, he says.
Around the corner, out of sight, another old man called Wallis Williams is also being shouted at. I have been asked twice if I am Wallis Williams. If anyone asks me a third time I will say that I am just to see what happens.
Jacob, Wallis and I are the only inhabitants of the ward. There is one empty bed and a toilet with a large female sign. After a while a young gangly nurse sits in a chair in the middle of the ward, angled away from Williams, but sneakily watching him.
‘I didn’t think you looked like a Wallis,’ she whispers to me.

I have told my story eight times. First to the GP, who thought it was probably asthma, despite my peak flow monitor performance. ‘You’ve got to kill the tiger,’ he says, pointing at the wall. ‘Imagine this tube fires poisonous darts and you’re about to be attacked. Now kill the tiger!’
I kill the tiger. The arrow shoots to the very end of the tube. I feel like I have won at the fairground, even without the ding of a bell.
‘Oh,’ says the GP, blowing down the tube himself to see if it is broken.
The next time I tell the story it is on the phone to the emergency doctor’s receptionist, then to the emergency doctor’s nurse and then to the ambulance crew that she sends around.
‘We might have to shave off your chest hair,’ says Greg the paramedic. ‘In squares.’
In the ambulance Greg’s female colleague tells me that she hates doing maternity calls because it’s not really an illness. And she hates traffic accidents because they are usually chaotic and if you don’t get there first you have no chance of imposing any order. Most of their calls come from the blind drunk.
‘Who calls it in?’ I ask.
‘Their blind drunk friends.’
Greg, while we wait in the unloading bay at the hospital, says that sometimes patients have to wait for three hours in the back of a cold ambulance before going in. As soon as they set foot through the hospital doors, the clock starts ticking, and the hospital trust gets fined if they are not seen within fifteen minutes. So during busy times, they are simply left outside. That ties up the local ambulances, meaning that emergencies have to be dealt with by vehicles coming in from other areas.
‘When I finally get free,’ he says, ‘I’ll have to go to Bedford ‘cause all their units are over here.’
My wait is thankfully short, and I tell my story for the fifth time on a bed in the corridor. The nurse says that I am ischaemic. I ask her how you spell ischaemic. I like to know what words are, especially when they refer to my heart. She does not know, and apologises. ‘It’s easier when you write it down,' she says.
I tell my story for the sixth time to an assessing consultant. He says the blood from my veins is acidotic.
‘How do you spell that?’
He takes a second sample from an artery, digging round for twenty minutes in my wrist before tapping the spring.
‘Is the book good?’ he asks, glancing at The Blue Flower on my lap while he digs.
‘A bit flitty. I can’t get into it.’
‘I’m more of a movie man myself,’ he says. The consultant likes action and comedy. Taken was good, but Taken II was rubbish. I ask him to spell it. I cannot understand his accent. My blood is not acidotic after all.
I have not eaten or drunk anything since breakfast and it is two o’clock in the afternoon. I ask the movie doctor for a drink; he goes away and does not come back. I ask a Filipino nurse for a drink and he comes back, not with a drink but a form to sign. I ask what it is and he mutters something indistinct. I sign it. As it disappears from view, my wife arrives.
‘I think I just said the hospital can steal my stuff,’ I say. She gets me a four cups of water. ‘And where’s my laptop?’
The seventh retelling is to the senior consultant who thinks that it is probably a blood clot in the lungs. He sends me up for a CT scan. The radiologist looks like Liam Neeson in Taken.
‘Any problems with allergies?’ he says.
‘Not unless you’ve got any rabbits in here.’ He looks sinister. Don’t shoot me, I think, as I glide backwards, arms in hallelujah pose over my head.
The machine comes to life, hurling its band around my chest. I hold my breath when they tell me to, and could have held longer. I killed the tiger. I won at the fair. Dye shoots through a cannula into my blood stream. It feels like a warm hug on the inside, a hug that licks my balls. I can taste metal in the back of my mouth. It’s the closest I have come to sex for three weeks. Liam Neeson helps me up, still glaring. I haven’t got your daughter.
Finally, I speak to a chest specialist.
‘Tell me everything,’ she says.

My corner of the ward makes Harry Potter’s cupboard look inviting. A bed-sized alcove, yellow paint and a window looking out to a brick wall four feet away. The young nurse is still monitoring Wallis Williams out of the corner of her eye. Roastchickinstuffing arrives, seasoned by appetite. It is better than airline food, better than collillower pasda would have been. I imagine Gordon Ramsey, in the bowels of the hospital kitchens, yelling at the staff. ‘Don’t make dishes the porters can’t pronounce! You fricking wazzocks.’
The chest specialist speaks unambiguously. ‘You have multiple blood clots in both lungs. Now we just need to find out why.’
I am wheeled feet first to another ward, rushed up bright corridors from The Shining. The porter behind drives into the porter in front, as well as scraping the walls and crashing into doors. My feet get in the way. The Coronary Care Unit is lighter and more spacious. Wallis Williams would like it up here. How do you spell that? I ask the nurse, whose name is Ambuja. I am hooked up to thirteen wires and an oxygen tube and have seventeen syringes of my blood taken away. When I move, the monitor above my head alarms. The television cranes down to advertise at the side of my face. A few loose burps fly around the ward from behind the blue curtains. What do I do now?
At least no one has stolen my laptop. I open it, and start to write.



Having had a pretty rotten end to the year, I need a reminder from my holiday journal just how amazing our trip to New Zealand turned out to be.

It’s an inch on the map but it takes us four hours. The road traces the Coromandel peninsula loyally around every headland and pretty bay. Out in the firth of Thames black boats and rigs harvest seafood; the signs for fresh oysters get our mouths watering. Eventually we cross the hills on an even windier road. From the top we look back to the islands off Coromandel town, and forward to sweeping yellow beaches. Logging trucks squeeze past, tyres red with mud, carrying timber freshly felled from the forest.

Coromandel and the Firth of Thames

This is where we imagine the kiwis to live, their eggs on the floor among impenetrable pines, vulnerable only to the invading stoats. Finally we hit the bottom and turn off towards our dead end. On the map the low road appears to go right through the sea. In fact it is flanked by swamp land; scruffy bushes standing in clear water. We reach the one store town, sporting a single petrol pump to prevent visitors from getting stranded. Every New Zealander to whom we mentioned Whangapoua assumed we meant somewhere else. Although we probably don’t pronounce it right (something like ‘fonga-po-a’ with a very light ‘g’).

Whangapoua exists because of the beach, where three generations of baches (beach cabins) have been lined up against the shore. We’re at the back of the village by the fields, but it only takes five minutes to walk to the water’s edge. The off-white sand arcs gently for a mile, pitched up against small dunes by the strong, metre-high waves. Sometimes there are a handful of other people further down the bay, at other times we are alone. At night the sun kicks back into the hills behind the headland, and the last light on the beach is orange and cool.

Whangapoua beach

In fact the town exists because of two beaches. The second is not accessible by road. New Chums beach, or starfish beach to the natives, was a local secret until a travel website listed it as one of the best hidden beaches in the world. It is hard to reach, but having seen the pictures of white dry sand and golden flats against tall, dark trees, nothing will stop us from trying.

Every step of the trek builds our romantic expectations. The sun is shining as we cross the river at the northern end of Whangapoua beach, following the shore of the headland as it fills up with rocks. At first we can walk between them, but then they pile up: large and irregular, hard to walk on. The older children clamber ahead, but Jude finds it difficult and the baby must be carried. A track emerges by the undergrowth that at first makes walking easier. But it has been wet, and deep brown mud and puddles appear in the path, crisscrossed by devilishly slippery tree roots. We debate returning to the slow rocks, but the path is beginning to rise slightly. At last, after some tears and a lost flip flop, it turns and crosses the headland saddle.

An impossibly blue flash comes through the trees, and as we descend we see more of the gorgeous bay. Theo and Huxley have already negotiated the meagre rocks on the other side and are running in the water as though they were born to do so. The sandy crescent is so lovely, backed by dark and steep vegetation, that our hearts soar and we are desperate to dive into the inviting waters.

New Chums beach

Small snappers jump out of the shallows as we plunge in and each wave leaves sunlit effervescence on the surface. It is like swimming in champagne. And the water is mild. After the first nip it becomes warm enough to forget about the temperature completely. The struggle to get here is forgotten. It is simply the nicest beach we have ever been to.

Wave breaking on New Chums beach

Back in Whangapoua, we eat fresh fish that our neighbour caught in the bay. At night, the air cools fast and ankles are assaulted by sand flies, while the strumming of a thousand cicadas is as loud as the stars overhead are numerous. A mantis climbs up the window. In the morning the boys catch him. They call him Moron for being so easily captured: they put a bucket down and he crawled right in.

The village is still a wild place, belonging to the creatures. A fat kingfisher sits on the power line, less colourful but bigger than its British cousin. California quail busy themselves around the fences and shrubbery while welcome swallows swoop red-head first above them. In the weeds by the dusty road spiders build web balls like candy floss, and we startle a tatty peacock and his white hen who make off up the hill. We could stay here forever, defending sandcastles from the sea, bathing in it and devouring its fruit.

Whangapoua beach in the evening