UK | 2008
Tim Dee has been a BBC radio producer for twenty years and a birdwatcher for twice that time. He was born in Liverpool in 1961 and divides his time between Bristol and Cambridge. In October 2009 Jonathan Cape (in the UK) and The Free Press/Simon and Schuster (in the USA) will publish his first book, a memoir, The Running Sky(called A Year on the Wing, in the US). The book was finished at Santa Maddalena in the autumn of 2008. Later in 2009/2010 Penguin will publish The Poetry of Birds, an anthology of bird poetry that he is editing with Simon Armitage.
My six weeks at Santa Maddalena took me from 120 000 nonfiction words (on my life as a birdwatcher) in a mess – about three finished chapters, sketches for another five, a chaos of ideas for the remaining four – to a manuscript which I was able to submit to my publishers within a few weeks of my return to the UK. Every day I climbed the steps of the tower from my bedroom to the top work room, opened the windows, breathed in the cooling autumn air, waited for a hunter’s rifle shot or two to crack from the woods all around, and then sat at the marvellous long table there and wrote and wrote and wrote. I broke off for coffee, a bread roll and delicious Tuscan jam, returned to the top of the tower, laughed as – each day – a lizard in the warming sun, clambered over the window ledge and peered in at me, marvelled at how the cauldron of flies got cooking in the middle of the room, and felt my head being stapled into place by a green woodpecker as it tapped its way around the wooden eaves edging the tower. And I wrote on and on. I have never had so little to do in my life before and never been able to focus so sharply on a single thing. It felt like an incredible privilege. My normal life involves two children, two home towns, a full time job juggling microphones and actors and BBC managers, shopping, cooking, laundry – all of the usual slew. To have six weeks of Tuscan jam every day was heaven.
I switched my laptop off at one, ate pasta at lunch, chatted with the Santa Maddalena team – the kindest people imaginable from the Sri Lankan cook, via a wine-making Italian accountant, through a half Sudanese half Romanian genius fixer cum instant friend to the quite marvellous Beatrice herself – with stories and necessary gossip as well as encouragement and inspiration. I walked for an hour after lunch, listening to woodlarks sing and watching persimmons ripen and then climbed the tower again to hack and rework and draft and dream and bring a book into land through the canopy of yellowing leaves just outside the window. A little wine after dark, an always tasty dinner, more talk, then the tower walk once again for a final look over the pages of the day. Days became weeks and a month passed and I hardly left the place but then I hardly wanted to. It was simply the thing – the room, the view, the help, the friendship – that let me write the book I wanted to write.