The Magic Campervan

Many years ago in the days when Corona was a beer, a virus was an annoyance, and no one believed Brexit would really happen, I used to travel from Portugal to the UK in my campervan with Leo. My mother lives not far from the M25 so, inevitably, we would spend several days a year glued to the motorway. One rainy day, we went to visit some friends in Cambridge and we snailed along the M25 and then the M11. I spent many hours while accelerating and breaking redesigning the UK travel infrastructure by creating covered raised tracks above the motorways for electric bikes (just in case any road planners read this) while Leo flew aeroplanes on his iPad. It should have taken us one hour and forty-five minutes. It took us five hours and forty-five minutes. For a journey of 82 miles, we were achieving about 13 miles an hour. A bike (electric or not) would have been quicker.

But then I had a better idea. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the campervan could fly! Just up and go and say goodbye to all these thousands of cars lined up bumper to bumper.

‘Hey, Leo! Imagine we could fly off?’ I said, excitedly

‘Can we?’ said Leo, crashing one of his planes.

‘No,’ I said, breaking hard.

And so began the idea of The Magic Campervan.

I decided there and then that my characters would be from non-traditional families. I had IVF and being an older mum is amazing but also, at times, difficult. I began to think about different characters, different nationalities, different genders, different cultures. I wanted a wide representation. I would write a series of maybe six books, each one an adventure, a journey, connected somehow by the campervan. I have travelled to the tips of Africa and Asia and lived in many countries from Japan to Russia and, of course, Portugal, and I wanted to include a slice from all. Then I realised I needed to be a little bit realistic and crossed out most of the map. I would stay mainly in Europe.

I like my fiction to have its toes in reality but for it to jump high. My campervan would fly but also have its wheels on the ground.

‘A helicopter, Leo, like a chinook.’

‘What?’

I’m intrigued by extraordinary events that happen to us. I believe that everyone is special. Little ones especially so. They are still forming themselves/being formed, busy absorbing all the good and bad we give them, intentionally or not. I wanted my books to be positive, but realistic. Many kids have a hard time at school, at home. Many adults have a hard time being parents. Some kids (and adults) have a hard time writing, reading, concentrating, communicating, drawing… Some kids (and adults) are explosive. These are all issues about growing (adults) and growing up (kids) that interest me and that I wanted to include. Of course, these days many kids (and adults) are diagnosed with ADHD, ODD or ASD and we are learning more about the differences in how our brains are wired. But on a personal note, I learned much from Edward Seymour about how we have been passed down imperfect behaviours from our parents, who, in turn, had received similar treatment and how we do the same. He helped me see things that I hadn’t seen before and understand that we can rewire our brains. That was ten years ago.

The Forbidden Slide is my first fictional work in ten years and my first attempt at younger fiction. It has taken more than five years from the M25 to publication. Of course, You-Know-What hit us in the meantime and I was busy teaching both university and primary school students. I attempted to find a publisher in the UK but no luck. I almost forgot about the manuscript but then, stuck for something to read earlier this year, I remembered it and read it to Leo, my heart thumping. He normally stops me after the first chapter of any book, but this time didn’t. ‘Read more!’ he said excitedly. Then a Portuguese publisher offered to publish it in Portuguese so I finally decided to publish the English version myself.

A huge thank you to Nuno Rosalino for translating and to Paula Watt for the illustrations and many thanks to Richard Zimler, George Szirtes and Ian Nettleton for writing reviews.

The English version is out and available online or through me. The ebook and the Portuguese version (printed and electronic) will be out at the beginning of 2022. Book 2, The Enteldont’s Skull, is on its way. If anyone has any feedback I would love to hear from you.

The Northern Lights, Iceland and Elves

‘The moon had set by now, and the sky to the south was profoundly dark, though the billions of stars lay on it like diamonds on velvet. They were outshone, though by the Aurora, outshone a hundred times. Never had Lyra seen it so brilliant and dramatic; with every twitch and shiver, new miracles of light danced across the sky. And behind that ever-changing gauze of light that other world, that sunlit city, was clear and solid.’ Philip Pullman, Northern Lights, Scholastic, 1995, p 390

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Image by Philippa Edwards

‘My daughter’s gone to Iceland,’ my mother told a neighbour, also with a young child in tow. They were in a queue in the village shop. ‘So I’m looking after my grandson. Leo! Don’t touch.’

‘Mine has as well,’ the neighbour said.

‘Oh, that’s a coincidence. What’s she doing there? Lisa’s gone riding and to see the northern lights.’

‘Oh. That Iceland. Jen’s gone shopping.’

It seems bizarre that a country shares its name with a supermarket. But there are lots of bizarre things about Iceland. For instance, the fact that more than half the population believe in elves, and the horses (no bigger than ponies) have an extra gait, and one in ten of the population are writers. The first time I heard of anyone going there was in 1995 when I got my first job teaching at the University of East Anglia. I remember feeling a pang of envy. It seemed so far away, at the edge of the world. My colleague came back flustered talking of glaciers, geysers, green-rocked landscapes and horses. Even before reading Philip Pullman I vowed to go one day. No one I knew shared my dream. The general response to Iceland (the country) in Portugal is that you have to be mad to go somewhere so cold.

Almost twenty years later since I felt that pang I set off in the camper van with Leo and make our way to England. It takes six days. A few rainy days later, I board the three-hour flight to Keflavik airport. Sitting next to me are two young men who have hitched from the French Pyrenees to London to get the flight. It has taken them three days. They plan to camp in a lava field and watch the northern lights from their sleeping bags. It is okay, they tell me. Their sleeping bags can cope with -15. I am pleased I am not that mad. As we fly north the seas flatten out and the clouds slowly disperse. We scribble in notebooks and look out the window as Iceland comes into view. The tips of volcanoes and mountains look like they have been dipped in icing sugar and the lowlands draped in dark velvet. The afternoon light is pink.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

I am part of a group of (slightly mad) people from all over Europe who have come to Iceland on a three-day riding holiday in October. Many of us are on our own. Our first stop is the Blue Lagoon and soon I am moving slowly through the hot blue lake, lost in the steam, gazing at the dark jagged lava beyond. A bar in the middle of the lake sells cocktails, wine and beer. Many of the bathers are young and beautiful. It almost feels like a film set and, indeed, a famous actress (I am told) floats by with her family. The water hugs me and I drift to a shore where the rock has become white and smooth like a ceramic bath tub. I lie there watching the baby-coloured sky and the setting sun, the turquoise water and the white steam. I’m sure I see shadows dart into the rocks. I close my eyes and think of the long journey to get here. Already it is worth it.

I shiver as I get back on the bus.

‘Iceland very cold,’ the driver says. ‘Good that we have volcanoes. Or you would need to drive more cars so we get some global warming.’ Only the glint in his eye gives away his humour.

It is cold. When the bus gets a puncture we all troop outside to have a look.IMG_2029

‘It’s the tyre,’ the driver says and squats down to take a closer look. I think he is waiting for some elves to come and help him. Fortunately, one of the Danish women in our group is a truck driver and she is soon under the bus undoing the bolts and bang-bang-bang the tyre is off.

‘Will you marry me?’ the bus driver asks the Danish truck driver.

She thrusts the jack at him and we get on our way again.

The road is new and empty. There are only 320,000 Icelanders (excluding elves). Pockets of apartments, warehouses and shops glimmer in the dusk – as if they’ve been miraculously built during the night. There are no people. Strange stone sculptures scatter the rocky landscape and Icelandic horses graze. It is dark when we arrive at the farm. The smell of horses and lamb stew fills the warm dining room. After dinner we go out and look up into the sky but the sky is empty and cold. The cold bites my hands and nose and I can’t help worrying about the French men in their tent.

A young woman, Philippa, is rereading Northern Lights. I was already teaching when I read it but the enchanting landscape of the arctic north, going closer to the end of one world and the beginning of another, propelled my dream to head north one day.

IMG_2041The morning dawns candy floss pink. We get our miniature horses, saddles and bridles and we set off at a walk crossing rivers and through a recently planted wood. The mud is covered with a thin layer of ice like a nightshirt. We crunch through it and then when we reach higher ground we sit back, heels down and legs slightly forward and trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr. This is the tölt, the magical fifth gear of the Icelandic horse which enables them to travel vast distances. When it clicks in the pony flies beneath you, the front legs curve like cresting waves, its seat as smooth as a sofa.

IMG_2152We pass a geyser, its hot steam spewing out of the ground. Tourists gather round taking photographs and gasping every time it explodes. Hot water runs down the road.

That evening we are eating dinner when another one of the Danish women (a ship’s mate) comes in and says casually, ‘You want to see the lights?’ We all rush out.

Sure enough a green band is draped across the northern sky. A spell has been cast. No one really speaks except for a few curses at cameras and iPhones that refuse to photograph the transformed sky. It is cold and yet the night envelopes and hugs. I feel as if I can almost touch the green ribbon but it is just out of reach.

I give up trying to capture the light and go for a walk on my own. The Aurora casts a hue over the land as if a magic coat has been thrown over the night. I imagine elves coming out and constructing cities and building roads. And bears in the mountains and witches flying on broomsticks. The band of light narrows and widens in places but it doesn’t dance. Tonight it is lazy like a snake slowly digesting. It fades slightly and the cold grabs me.

We walk to a pub on the edge of a lava field. The bar looks new as if it has only just been built. I have a sense of shifting landscapes. Buildings appearing and disappearing. I get lost walking back and find myself walking into the darkness. I feel like I’ve been tricked but I don’t feel scared. I’m almost waiting for someone to take my hand. By the time I get back to the farm the green light has gone.

The next day the sky is hungover and the wind is grumpy. We saddle up our horses and set off trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr. We pass a river of melted glacier that thunders down the valley. To fall in would mean death within seconds. We ride alongside the canyon of Hvítá. It is cold, very cold. The wind punches my face and my toes and fingers have long lost consciousness. My ‘all weather’ riding gloves do not include Iceland. I put my frozen fingers into the shaggy fur of Tyrfill, my warm chestnut horse and trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr.

The wilderness and cold is paused by the cafe at Gullfoss waterfall. Tourists watch as we unsaddle and then rush to the warm and order soup and coffee. I buy some gloves.
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‘This is all new,’ Elka says, a woman from the Netherlands who has been coming to Iceland for twenty years, as we walk down walkways to the waterfall. The water crashes down the rocks and spray rises twenty metres into the air.

‘But it is still beautiful,’ she adds.

I can’t help being grateful for the warm cafe.

‘Iceland very cold,’ the driver reiterates as he drives us back to Reykjavik.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Portugal is much warmer. But we don’t have elves.’

‘Ach!’ He tuts. ‘They just cause trouble.’


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