At Hawthornden, we have an obscene amount of time. So have the many others who have occupied it. There are collections of bird
eggs in the drawers and long passages in the guest book.
BLOOD SPURTS AS SOON AS I COLLAPSE ON MY CASTLE bed. It’s coming from my nose, but I’m aching all over. It must be all the traveling—there were two planes, two trains, a bus and a taxi. “Many a battle was fought here,” my cabbie said as we turned into the long driveway that afternoon.
It could also be from anger—the train ride cost as much as a domestic plane ride back home. There is also the draught that creeps under the door and the cold front it creates as it meets the electric wave from my bedside heater. I’ve come prepared with Vicks and asthma inhalers and with what few hundred pounds I could gather in the looming shadow of the financial crisis, but not for this.
Over our welcome dinner a few hours earlier, a fellow resident called it “latitude sickness.” She is obviously a failed, self-important fictionist like I have warned myself I would be. At dinner I am also warned, by our administrator and the castle staff, about the badgers that are fond of roaming the castle grounds. I certainly know of the verb, and have seen the animal illustrated and photographed, but I have never encountered the real thing. I think they are too common to be placed in zoos. “They can rip chucks of flesh right out of you,” Richard the admin announces. Having already lost a good amount of blood through my nose, I have decided to arm myself. I will never roam the glen (again, something I’ve seen illustrated and photographed many times, but here it is, almost too much of it) without a walking stick, with which to whip such critters’ backs, and maybe a camera, with which I can capture them in mid-flight, or God forbid, mid-fight.
Relative obscurity and its existence in recent decades as a writers’ retreat has allowed Hawthornden Castle to endure eight centuries. Here, in the middle of Lasswade, Scotland, foxes throw growls to distract us from their cubs’ paths, rabbits flip-flop out of reach, midges sting and nettles nettle, and the river Esk, on a low churn, winds through an idle, semipopulated wild. There’s no Internet, no television. On certain days, a milky blue fog lays a ghostly haze on the windows and plunges us back into the dark ages. This is as close to how it was, we figure, and it’s really as close as I want to be.
But there are some mornings that are so clear that we see, in the distance, draft horses grazing the backs of rapeseedyellowed hills, and it’s swell enough for me to shake my head over the fact that it was my writing that brought me here. But there’s also the fact that up here, the farthest I have been, I have only my writing. I’ve left my business and my domestic issues, and with them, the kind of pressure that somehow allows me to think clearly: On weekdays I have 14 hours to do business and two or three hours to worry about it. On odd days I squeeze in meetings at the University Press, where I am a consultant. To save travel time from my Quezon City
home, I sleep in my office, under my desk, three nights a week. The balance is left for writing, or thinking about what I wish I could write.
At Hawthornden, we have an obscene amount of time. So have the many others who have occupied it. There are collections of bird eggs in the drawers and long passages in the guest book—Zadie Smith’s consists of several pages of longhand (“She looked like she really knew what she was doing,” one of the staff says). Upon their advice a fellow resident and I take a “wee walk” to historic Roslyn Chapel. Two hours later, at the end of a good wheezy trudge, and nursing an unfathomable pain in my short legs, I find myself looking for Knights Templar and looking up at the Green Men.
From the top of the steel cage that keeps Roslyn Chapel well preserved, we squint at the castle, hidden by a forelock of forest, cutting a fairytale figure in the glen. Between us, we share college degrees, a master’s in art history, and a doctorate in literary criticism. My contribution to this pool of knowledge is exactly one college degree. But I am the one who recognizes that thought, coming slow and clear in the crisp air: “Hey, we can see our house from here!”
Night in, night out, we withdraw to the castle’s drawing room, in the well-lit after-hours of the Scottish spring, to unwind from what is presumed to be a whole day’s work, and discuss the next day’s mission, to be spent again in silence and over food quietly placed at our doors. The badgering begins here, in the form of machine-gun discussions on everybody from Adorno and Benjamin to Sir Walter Scott. Night in, night out, my body, unkempt, overweight, and undereducated, desperately seeks something to cling to. I remember nothing from college, and besides, it was a biology degree. The only other degrees I had were the third-degree interrogations—to
borrow a term from the Knights Templar—I endured at the writers’ workshops I attended, where people announced that my poetry was “almost professional.”
But as I said, I endured. Maybe it was in my genes. My father himself had quit his job as an investment banker to become a screenwriter. And in a writer’s language, to endure means to drop everything that makes practical sense in the world and stick to what you’re going to die for, and of.
A week after I quit medical school I found myself working at an advertising agency. That turned into a five-year stretch of working for big multinational agencies. During that period, while everyone was thinking I was writing copy, I typed out stories on our group secretary’s computer and diligently sent out, via company messenger, to the Philippines Free Press and the Philippines Graphic. Whenever a story of mine was published, “my heart leapt” and I “danced for joy”—such was the extent of my elation, and of the bad writing I suspected myself to have written. I thought it was just punishment for all the subtle whoring I had been doing at my day job (“How does it feel to be selling your soul?” a poet once asked me. I had no comeback.)
At Hawthornden I feel like I am being punished by having nothing to write. Our medieval work schedule is, weirdly, full of distractions. There’s Bonny Rigg, a town I love for its quiet and quaintness, and the fact that it is ten minutes closer to Edinburgh. I also like to spend a lot of time in the Bonny Rigg library, where my visit to the Internet terminal always coincides with the session of a boy with Down syndrome. He reads aloud slowly as he types—I’m too polite to figure out to whom—and leaves the library when he’s done sending out the e-mail. I’m not too polite, however, to follow him out the library one day, and I am surprised to see him walking the street unaccompanied and catch the bus to Edinburgh.
The Scottish capital is 30 minutes away by the number 39 and the number 77. In the center of Edinburgh, a column of cold air keeps Princes Street in icy temper and I walk down to the Royal Mile in gusts of ragged, visible breath.
There is also a secret day trip to Glasgow, squeezed between the communal breakfast and dinner. Scotland’s largest city is an hour away by train, and in the economy car I find myself with a crowd of Scottish football fans and their German counterparts.
In Glasgow I am met at the Queen Street station by a novelist friend, a Glasgow native. When I called him earlier from Edinburgh he assured me, “Don’t worry, I’ll find you.”
He takes me for coffee at the Center for Contemporary Art, after we tour its galleries and offices. In one gallery a mannequin dressed up like a mummy is lying on the floor, emitting moans and groans from a speaker in its chest. Over coffee, my friend proudly shows me a Greek translation of his book and asks me about the progress of my newest collection. No, nothing to report, I tell him. I find myself warming to the thought of returning to the castle, with its rustling treetops, its cawing crows, its nest of writers. Our communal dinner is waiting.
On the train back to Edinburgh I find myself in the middle of the tension after the football match. Alcohol is prohibited on trains but as soon as the doors close all bets are off. I don’t know who won, but I certainly am aware who has the most chances of losing something. My only defense is to hide behind the covers of a book I have just bought—Benjamin’s Illuminations. I read it as if my life depended on it.
I get to the castle hours after dinner. But I feel alive and energetic and unwilling to return. I remember the sheet of paper in the drawer, describing two scenic walks around the castle. They call them the Castle Walk and the Lady Walk. The choice is clear. I consider myself adventurous but I am also a realist—that’s why I have a day job.
The Lady Walk begins with a dip off the side of the Castle and continues on a winding path past caves, alongside streams, under fallen timber, and through unfamiliar vegetation. The landscape is incredible and the air is full of the sounds of leaves and wildlife and the smell of vegetation and pollen.
My breaths are deepened by the long strides and the contemplative sighs, but as my lungs draw in the pollenrich air, within minutes it ceases to be a walk and becomes a hike for humanity. I turn into a hacking, gasping creature, crawling on my elbows and knees. I have no camera, no walking stick. I’ve left my inhaler in my room.
As I lie languishing, I can hear cars and trucks speed on the highway less than a hundred meters away, just over the glen. Not far away are my room and its siege of quiet, just behind the door painted with a long list of writers’ names to which mine would be added, living or dead.
Writer, editor-at-large at Esquire Philippines