Elizabeth Chats With…Wayne Snowden
I first met this month’s guest via a writers’ Facebook group when he provided one of the prizes in my book-launch draw.. When we realised we lived within 10 miles of each other, we arranged to meet up. Wayne Snowden, author of Padma and the Elephant Sutra, is fascinating to talk to; and this interview is one of the most thoughtful I have published in the several years since the feature first started. And there’s a tale at the end to keep us on the straight and narrow. (He tells me this is the most recent photo he has, but his chin is now bald!)
Hello Wayne and thanks for dropping by. Let’s start at the beginning. What is your earliest memory — and how old were you at the time?
I suspect I remember my birth. I say suspect because I am well aware of false memories. However, I remember being placed in the airing cupboard in the winter of ’62-3 with my new born sister – I would have been about 14 months old. I remember lying in the pram, pinned down by covers, people’s faces occasionally peering in, but mostly alone. I remember my yellow cotton pyjamas with cowboys and Indians on. There is a picture of me in them at about 9 months old propped up in an old armchair. I remember when I first stood up, against a dining chair leg. Everyone around me clapped and I realised they were doing it at me, an early connection between myself and others. There is also a photo of me at about two, standing on the front step. I remember being bathed and readied that day for the photo, and how my game was disturbed to take me outside.
My birth? What I remember is a sense of pressing and I guess a feeling like anxiety. Next, it was unbelievably cold, bright and loud. More like a painful assault on my being. Then, a sense of warmth and calm. But hey, I have no idea if they are real memories. I’ve certainly had them a long time if they are false. But then, I can’t really be sure of even that statement.What was your favourite subject at school — and which was the lesson you always wanted to avoid?
School was a long time ago. But I certainly remember I enjoyed most subjects. I liked science because it seemed like alchemy, unlocking the wondrous secrets of the universe. I liked religious studies, though I was not especially religious, because it was one of the few occasions in the 50’s built secondary modern school I attended where we had any kind of debate. I liked geography and biology because the teachers of those subjects had good control of the noisy rabble which constituted our class. Probably the subject I liked least was sport. It would often consist of standing around the edge of the penalty area (we had a field of pitches – now houses), in fog, listening to the teacher explain at length some technical detail of passing, followed by fifteen minutes of an actual game where I was lucky to get one kick of the ball. At least that’s how I remember it.
If you had to escape from a fire, what three things would you take with you?
Let’s assume my wife is already out of the fire and I have access to money and passport. I do not have any objects of great monetary value so it would be objects of sentimental value, things that connect me to my past and my identity. I would take one of my small Buddha statues on our mantelpiece, (collected from various adventures) or perhaps the little black stone Nandi my wife bought me in India one year. I might also grab a copy of my book. I still enjoy reading it, and feeling close to the characters (I’m not over identifying am I?). I would also probably pick something ridiculous like the needle-felted badger finger puppet which sits on a shelf in our soon to be charred lounge. At least I can talk to badger and he can offer me his reassuring glassy stare. I know he understands. If allowed, I might also grab his twin; a needle-felted goat. It’s difficult to imagine them without each other. They are kind of an item.
Looking around my room as I type I can see lots of nik-naks I would like to rescue from fiery oblivion. I guess I am going to have to practice non-attachment a little more.
Talking about yourself, how would you finish the sentence “not a lot of people know…”?
…me. Even fewer understand me. But I know I am loved.
If you knew you only had 24 hours left, how would you spend them?
I am a wanderer at heart. Assuming I had my physical health and my demise was just an issue of time, then I would put on some stout boots, take plenty of nourishment and head off into the countryside, walking in a straight line across fields, through woods, over brooks. I would listen to the world one last time. I would travel with my wife and we would hold hands in silent meditation, unless either of us fancied a moan.
If you could change one law, what would it be?
I don’t know where to begin with this. I feel there is so much wrong with the world, so much injustice. Our laws help to some degree to bring justice, but many of our laws also entrench injustice. I would want to change the ways we relate to each other and the world, which is what gives rise to the need for our laws in the first place. Perhaps we could change the whole system of law so that, instead of punishing people for doing ‘wrong’ we focus more on rewarding them for doing ‘right’. But I guess we could argue over right and wrong all night. Personally, I think we already know, (do unto others etc,) but our heads are adulterated with all manner of things designed to further our own cause. Failing a Brave New World, perhaps someone could implement the existing parking restrictions on my street.
What would you have printed on the front of your T-shirt?
‘Find your inner Padma’. What is Padma? I hear you cry. Read my novel, I reply.
Would you describe yourself as left-brain (analytical), right-brain (intuitive) or a mix of both?
I have a hunch I am left-brained but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. This myth is thoroughly debunked. To avoid creative constipation opt for wholebrain, it’s much better for you.
Tell us a tale?
One time, in North India, I visited a bird sanctuary. It was a vast area of forests and swamps. I stayed in a guesthouse near the entrance and planned to visit the reserve the following morning for a short walk before breakfast. Many cycle rickshaw drivers were hanging around the hotel at daybreak, obviously hoping to pick up some early work taking tourists around the scant road network in the park. I determinedly waved them off, having been ‘burned’ by guides on previous occasions at other tourist sites.
‘But it’s dangerous sir.’
‘I will be careful’.
‘You might get lost’
‘Phaa’! How could I get lost?
Off I went, into the park on foot, two or three hundred rupees saved. I walked for about half an hour down a long straight track with scrubby, moderately dense forest either side. I was thinking about turning back and using a driver after breakfast as the open plains were much further than I had imagined. The sun was not long up and I could already feel the heat. I had nothing with me, no water, food (or breakfast), map…what could go wrong on a short walk before breakfast?
Then, something moved in the corner of my eye. I turned and saw what I thought was a creature like a giant white rabbit, turning and hoping into the tree line. I kid you not. I was perfectly well and had certainly not smoked anything ‘exotic’. So, on believing I had seen this creature, I walked over to the trees and peered into the gloom. I could not see it anymore so decided to take a couple of steps into the wood, parting some overlapping branches, conscious to make a mental note of where I had entered.
I walked no further than ten paces into the trees. Looked around, then turned, but could not see where I had come from. I turned a bit more. Within a matter of seconds I had lost my bearings. I walked in the direction I thought most likely to bear fruit for about ten paces. I did not reach the path. It was then I felt a surge of apprehension. I knew I was lost. It was warm in the trees and only going to get hotter.
As I walked I cursed myself for being so stupid. I had no idea where I was going, and tried my best to walk in what I thought was a straight line, hoping to find open ground. After about two hours of walking and cursing and ‘fretting a bit’ – I’m no Livingstone – I came into a clearing where a group of village women were collecting forest flowers in baskets. Let us say they laughed heartily at the sight of a tall westerner stumbling out of the forest thicket looking perplexed. Actually, relief was the main sensation. In some local dialect and with lots of gesticulating they put me on a grassy path which led, more or less, back the entrance gate. After breakfast I took a rickshaw.
I had been so complacent and had no idea how easy it is to lose your way when you step off the path. I realise that reads like religious allegory, but it isn’t meant to. I guess those symbolic narratives used common, well understood occurrences to make their point.
When researching the history of British Ceylon for my book, I came across an account in the 1850’s of a man who, whilst visiting a tea plantation, went for a walk in the nearby forest. The planters found him about six months later only fifty yards from the plantation edge, slumped against a tree, still wearing his glasses. When I read this, a little shiver ran through me as I thought about how that man had lost his life.
Try and stay on the path. But if you find yourself going astray, do take a whistle old chap.
Thank you Wayne for that interesting and thought-provoking interview. And I make no apology for replacing my usual illustrations with your wife, Fran’s, beautiful gouache pictures.
The first is The God Cloud. Discovered on ancient parchment. The second is Padma in front of Sri Pada – the sacred mountain – surrounded by frangipani flowers. And the third is The Uposatha bull. This one is produced in mixed media – gouache, ink, pastels.
Readers, you can find out more about Wayne and his writing on his blog, which also features more of this wonderful artwork. Click here for Padma and the Elephant Sutra.