As I began to make progress with writing the novel, I knew I would need some advice on the habits of cuckoos. Of course, I knew they laid their eggs in other bird’s nests and had a strangely haunting call, but that was all.
One of our Councillors, Dave Bishop, is also a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and had previously told me about his work with youngsters at Fineshade Wood near Corby. I decided to ask him if he had any information on cuckoos, and also if a cuckoo could be white – an albino. I knew that albino blackbirds existed because I saw one as a child.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘All birds can be albinos, in the same way as human beings and other animals.’
During a very pleasant half hour before a meeting, I learned that there are lots of different species of cuckoo in the world and that a couple of these species migrate to the United Kingdom and are here only for around eleven weeks between April and July before they go back to a warmer climate. Their breeding cycle is longer than this – around fifteen weeks, so they usually have disappeared before their young hatch. In some parts of the world they are known as ‘rain crows’ because they have an uncanny habit of knowing when it is going to rain and communicate this to each other by changing their call slightly and making it more frequent. Despite their parasitic habits, they are largely monogamous. When they are courting they love to feed each other and this helps the pair to bond. Cuckoos are nomads. They have no special loyalty to one particular area, as some birds do, but they will go wherever there is a good supply of food. They are also one of the only birds that are partial to hairy, or spiny, caterpillars – most birds avoid them. They live mainly on insects, but if food is scarce they will eat berries, too.
The most intriguing thing about cuckoos is that they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and then, when their young hatch, for the first few weeks of their development they have a special groove between their shoulder blades that makes it easy for the young cuckoo to cup the other fledglings in the nest on its back and flip them out of the nest. The unsuspecting parents then continue to raise the cuckoo as their lone offspring. This is
known as brood parisitism. Now, this is the really strange thing and one knows how it happens, but when a cuckoo lays its egg in another bird’s nest, the egg it produces is exactly like that of the host bird. They can be deep brownish through to duck-egg blue and with varying amounts of speckling, depending on the egg of the host. It is one of the mysteries of the natural world as to how the cuckoo is able to do this. They lay their eggs in mainly sparrow, robin and dunnock nests in the United Kingdom, but not exclusively. Sadly, cuckoo numbers are declining.
As the pace of my writing picked up, the novel became ‘The Cuckoo’ in my life and shoved everything else out. At lunchtime on Saturday, 4th April 2009 I wrote the opening paragraph of ‘The White Cuckoo’. At the end of the following Monday early morning writing session I’d written 14,000 words. Two weeks later I was on 37,209 words and on the morning of 22nd April, I shut down the document at 45,788 words. It felt as if the story was draining away a part of me that had always been within me – I just didn’t know it until I began writing.
I felt exactly like I do when I’m reading a novel I can’t put down – I just couldn’t stop writing and was completely absorbed in the story. From the writers’ block of only a few weeks before, I had gone from one extreme to the other. I couldn’t eat: I couldn’t sleep: I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. There was definitely a strange kind of synchronicity, or serendipity, going on – subtle, odd coincidences were eloquently presenting me with answers to questions I had about aspects of the plot.
Here is just one example. I had been asking around since I first had the idea for the plot to try and find someone over the age of 70 who was born prematurely. I wanted to get some first-hand anecdotes about what it was like when a tiny baby was born, with no access to modern technology or incubators, etc. One day, I gave someone a lift to a meeting. I nearly didn’t offer the lift, because it was during the daytime and I would have to fetch her in my lunch break. It was a particularly busy day at work and I didn’t have the time to mess around taking old ladies to meetings. I found myself offering her a lift back home, too, which would pile even more time onto my already busy day! On the return journey we hit a traffic jam, delaying me even more. Then, this seventy-eight year old lady, who didn’t know anything about my writing, completely out of the blue told me that ‘when she was born she weighed just over two pounds and was a seven-month baby. I could hardly believe my luck.
Twenty minutes later, I’d all the information I needed. There was only one problem: you can’t write it all down when you’re driving, so as soon as I got home from work I made some notes.
Then, that very same week I rescued a box of old books at work that were destined for the book cemetery when an office was being rearranged and redecorated. Seeing old books destined to end their life in a skip is something any writer worth their salt wouldn’t ignore. One phone call later saw an environmental health colleague staggering into my office with them in his arms. I could hardly restrain my joy at being given custody of the Kettering Public Health records for the beginning of the last century. (They now reside under my desk – when I eventually retire I need to be assured of a suitably good home for them, or else I am taking them with me!)
I browsed the records, looking for information on premature births in 1910, and there, before me, was all the statistical information I required.
The theme than runs through both the main plot and, in varying degrees, all the sub-plots the novel is based on the lifestyle and habits of the cuckoo. The White Cuckoo an easy read, but its construction and the use of symbolism, allegory and subtle morality was one of the most delicate and difficult works I have ever created. Mother nature does not instill us with morals and values: instead she provides us with intuition, instincts and reflex actions. Mother nature does not know right from wrong, but we, as human beings, can decide. We are masters of our own destiny. We might not be in control of our feelings and thoughts, but we are, or should be, in control of our behaviour.
The White Cuckoo is not a religious book, despite the church – and particularly the graveyard – in the village of Lyverton being the focal point around which the plot gravitates. I have, however, used a couple of hymns and a passage from the bible to demonstrate the immortal and invisible unknown – the essence of what makes most people feel good inside when we do something right, and bad when we do something wrong. I was right in the middle of this moral/ethical debate in my head (and also in person with a friend who is studying morality and ethics) when Councillor Dave Bishop came rushing into my office.
‘How far have you got with the novel,’ he said gravely.
‘Why?’ I replied.
‘Because I’ve just discovered an albino cuckoo has never been seen before in this country,’ he said with a worried look etched like tramlines across his forehead.