Following in The Highwayman's Footsteps

I'm losing control of reality. This morning, as I settled into my train seat at the start of a ten-hour journey and two-day trip, my laptop died, deserting me. Now, on the Isle of Wight, there's no phone signal. I am suffering technology withdrawal symptoms, my fingers twitching for a keyboard, my eyes needing icons. But I'm 450 miles from home, listening to Alfred Noyes reading The Highwayman.

I am not joking. I'm in Alfred Noyes' house, listening to an old recording of him reading that famous, mesmerising poem. It's an emotional poem, the most emotional I know, but how much more so when read by the poet, in his house, with his ghost hovering nearby. And no doubt laughing at me for my reliance on technology.

It's late, but I can't sleep. I want to see the moon. 'I'll come to thee by moonlight. I'll wait for thee by moonlight...' But there's thick cloud. Besides, in my horrible modernity, I haven't a clue where it should be, whether it's new or crescent or full.

I'm here because of my new book, and its heroine, Bess, who followed in her father's footsteps. Bess is the fiery, independent, furious daughter of Noyes' highwayman and his lover, also Bess - the landlord's red-lipped, black-eyed daughter. I'm here because I'm following footsteps too - Alfred Noyes' footsteps. And it's his daughter's idea.

Let me explain. Noyes' poem informs my book so overtly, so deeply, that I needed permission to use it. His daughter, Margaret Noyes, now Lady Nolan, read The Highwayman's Footsteps and generously gave her permission. Later, I interviewed her. 'You should visit our old house,' she said, 'though I'm afraid the Isle of Wight is a long way from Edinburgh.' Never mind, I mused - think of all the work I can do on my laptop...

Lady Nolan was still speaking. 'And while you're there, you can listen to the recording... of my father reading The Highwayman.' I don't know if she heard my intake of breath but with difficulty I managed to continue our conversation, a fascinating conversation with a daughter who spoke of her father with obvious affection.

'He had a great love of life. I remember at meal-times, with guests, gales of laughter from his end of the table.' She told of how surprised he was at the extraordinary fame of this early poem, written soon after leaving Oxford - he had left to find a publisher instead of sitting his finals. She told me many details, including one which didn't need to be said: 'He had a wonderful reading voice.'

I know. It makes my spine tingle.

I follow the printed words as I listen, two small lamps giving a sallow glow to the room. It's the version with Charles Keeping's award-winning illustrations. When I first saw them, I admit that I didn't entirely warm to them. I wanted colour, red for Bess's lips and the dark-red love-knot; I wanted claret velvet and brown doe-skin, jewelled sky, the purple moor, the wine-red coat. Above all, I wanted scarlet for passion, anger and death.

Now I'm reading it again, through eyes that are not entirely dry, with the reedy, moonlit pictures blurring and all the passion drawn in the music of the words, and in the poet's own voice, measured, throaty, rich.

I will leave with something more physical than memories: earlier this evening, as the shadows shifted across the lawns to the sea, Noyes' grandson gave me a copy of an early hand-written draft of the poem, complete with crossings out. The death of my laptop lends an extra poignancy to these hand-written crossings out. I am forced to write this article by hand, and it is not easy, let me tell you. And it makes me wonder - in the future, further into our digital age, how will other readers trace the early drafts of their favourite writers' works, when everything has vanished into that pixellated dustbin in the ether?

But I digress. You may be interested to know that originally Noyes' moon was not a 'ghostly galleon' but a 'Flying Dutchman' and that, far from being a 'torrent of darkness,' it was 'wallowing loudly'.

Nicola Morgan, reading Alfred Noye's The Highwayman

Now the tape has ended, its crackles fading into nothing. I must look out of the window. And believe me - for it's absolutely true - the moon is there, and it is a 'ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas'. It appears completely full to me.

There's something about humans and footsteps. We are drawn to follow them. We seem programmed to look for patterns and make connections, to step in the paths of ghosts, to want to touch the things they touched and to feel touched by their long-ago presence. In Noyes' autobiography, Two Worlds for Memory, he speaks of how as a young man, on a trip to stay with his publisher William Blackwood in Edinburgh, he felt excitement 'merely to arrive at a station called Waverley, to meet Sir Walter Scott in marble on Princes Street, to walk up the Canongate with Robert Louis Stevenson's poems in my pocket and the rhythm of Bonnie Dundee in my head, almost expecting to meet their authors at any moment, ...'

I know what he meant. I had travelled from Edinburgh to the Isle of Wight not for research - I'd finished my novel, made all the connections I needed - but from a desire to touch the past. I'm currently working with some school children on a local history project. When they touch the ancient stones of a castle, and hear the stories of the ghosts who have passed those same stones, they connect with the past, with reality. They feel. Seeing it on a screen just doesn't do it. You have to breathe the air, reach out to touch the past - you have to follow footsteps. For me, this has been a remarkable journey, a story of connections, of letting go of reality and yet somehow finding something more real.

It was even worth the death of my laptop.

© Nicola Morgan Oct 2006

Adapted from an article published in Carousel - the guide to children's books