This morning I tuned into a radio programme by chance – BBC Radio 4 – The Night Visiting – and immediately fell into a well of memory. It acutely reminded me of my second novel, Water (1994). Writing that book was an odd dreamlike experience. I never understood where it came from. It poured out uncontrollably and I had to stop working on it several times because it brought so many watery nightmares, some of which are still vivid in my mind. Set in the north of England where I grew up, the book became an intense account of disturbed nights, drownings, and passions, all wrapped up with the angsts and guilts of motherhood. The main character imagines a dreamed lover so strongly that she forces him into physical existence, but he never becomes quite real. He is like a merman, an entity materialised from water and air. In the end, as one would expect, he vanishes never to return. I used to listen to a lot of English folk music years ago, and hearing the songs on this programme helped me understand that some of the book may have come from those distant stories of lovers returning in the night. I’m wondering now whether I’m brave enough to re-read the book – especially because, some years later, I lived through it for real. But that is a story for another time.
About the Night Visiting programme
The award-winning folk musician Tim van Eyken has travelled the world performing traditional songs. He also works in the theatre and was the Song Man in the National Theatre’s production of ‘War Horse’. One of the first songs he ever heard, from his mother, was ‘The Bay of Biscay’. In this a woman is visited in the night by her lover, returned after seven years at sea. It turns out that he was drowned, the visitor is his ghost… and he cannot stay.
There are many varieties of night visiting song: tales of seduction; stories of deception, when the visitor turns out not to be the expected lover; and songs of ghostly visitation.
In ‘The Night Visiting’ Tim probes the history, meaning and significance of these songs. He talks to the singer Martin Carthy about their power. Dr Vic Gammon sets them in their international context – there are in Europe dawn songs. He hears from Bella Hardy; the first song she ever wrote was a new night visiting song.
Tim believes that the night visiting songs are more than old yarns; that they speak to us today of desire, love and loss – and sexual and class politics. He tests his ideas with the Jungian psychotherapist, Warren Colman. Professor Chris French, who researches the paranormal, and film-maker Carla MacKinnon, who have both been working on sleep paralysis, consider the psychology of the songs, what might actually be happening to the people in them.
Tim considers, too, how the night visiting is a trope in our literature. Isn’t the balcony scene in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ a night visit? What of Cathy in ‘Wuthering Heights’? Throughout, we hear beautiful, haunting, night visiting songs, performed by the people Tim speaks to, and taken from archive recordings.