Sense of Place:

Ray Robinson, author of Jawbone Lake

All artists have places that matter to them. Be it where they work, the setting of their latest piece, or where they go to think. Our Sense of Place feature invites you to the places that matter to our authors.

This time Ray Robinson gives us a tour of the breathtaking locations that inspired the settings in his new book Jawbone Lake.

Although the main action in my novels is rooted in domestic settings, landscapes are an integral feature of all of my books. In Electricity, it was the seaside setting of Morecambe. In The Man Without, inner city Manchester and Todmorden in West Yorkshire. In Forgetting Zoë, the most important setting was the John Rylands Library in Manchester where I wrote the book (usually freezing my arse off), the landscapes of ‘Unnr island’ and ‘Coyote Plains’ being imaginary.

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In my new book, Jawbone Lake, the action takes place among the contrasting landscapes of the Andalucían foothills of southern Spain and the lush valleys of the Derbyshire Peak District. Even though there is no such thing as ‘wilderness’ in either of these places – both have been moulded by human endeavour – I believe the landscapes still retain enough dramatic power and wildness to transform the people that live there. Both landscapes are perfect settings for a novel: dramatic, historic, and mysterious.

At the top of the hill, he stopped to catch his breath, looking down across the terracotta rooftops towards the Rock of Gibraltar and the distant mountains of Morocco…

Ray Robinson - Sense of Place

I started writing the book when I was living in Jimena de la Frontera, a small pueblo blanco in the foothills of Andalucía. The building in the photograph, on the corner of the street, was my house – a one-room casita.

The casita itself was small: no more than an open-plan sleeping and living area, with a tiny galley kitchen and an even smaller shower room. The ceiling, striped with wooden beams, sloped up towards the bedroom area at the rear, where a large mosquito net hung around the bed like something from the Arabian Nights. There were two windows at the front of the casita, both with Juliet balconies overlooking the cobbled street outside…

Every evening, I would walk up to the mirador (viewing point) to watch the sunset. It was on the outskirts of the village where the vultures usually gathered in large numbers. I’d watch the landscape change, musing on the view. The distant band of mountains, covered in dense oak forest, would dim. Below, a few bends in the river reflected the final fingers of sunlight and I could hear the melancholy screech of the vultures in the canyon below. As soon as the sun disappeared below the brow of the mountains a sudden wind would pick up and shake the tall eucalypts behind me. Then all of the village dogs would start up.

I remember taking an early morning train that snaked east through the mountains, towards Ronda and Granada. I remember the fog hanging in the canyons like will-o’-the-wisps, and the bare granite mountaintops silhouetted vividly against a lavender sky. When I close my eyes, I can still see the drama of that sky. Like holding a photograph in front of my eyes.

I was forever getting lost in the mountains and cork forest, usually in my quest to find the prehistoric cave paintings that the locals talked about (though no one was willing to tell me where they were). After a couple of months of searching, I found them.

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It was some kind of naval scene. I counted five ships, all completely different in design. But I recognised one ship in particular, with a spiky figurehead, stern, oars and sail. It was the town’s emblem; I’d seen images of it everywhere for the past month. It became Rosie’s tattoo in the novel, and also the boat that Joe dreams he sails away on with his dead father. When I looked back out of the cave, the sun was low in the sky, and the castle in Jimena was a speck in the distance (I took the photograph above from this very spot). I was surprised by how many miles I’d covered. I gathered up my things and headed back down the mountainside.

When I decided that I wanted to set the English section of the novel in the Derbyshire Peak District (mainly Matlock, which went on to become the fictional ‘Ravenstor’), I went to live there for six months, to get a feel for the place, the people.

[Joe] went over to the window and watched snow fleck the valley. In the distance, the white peak of High Tor looked vivid in the fading light. Snow lay heavy across the rectangles of higgledy-piggledy rooftops descending into the valley below. Cars progressed beneath the orange stars of streetlights, familiar constellations snaking between the mass of hill, tor, fell…

These images show the view from my desk, looking down over Matlock, which, in turn, became the view from Joe’s bedroom window. The photo with Riber Castle in the distance was taken on one of those strange days when a louring storm approaches over the moors but there’s still bright sunlight trapped in the valley. Fans of Shane Meadows’ films will recognize the castle as the setting for Dead Man’s Shoes.

This was a great place to write. I’d open my curtains every morning and always take pleasure in the view, no matter the weather. Sometimes I’d just sit there and watch the landscape change. It was a perfect spot for daydreaming, for inspiration.

She found herself dropping down by the river again, just below High Tor. The gritstone gorge always filled her with fear. […] An eerie light filled the gorge. Currents of damp air rising from the surrounding woodland brought with them the smell of pine and spruce, gorse and broom…

This photograph was taken from the Heights of Abraham, famous for its Alpine chair lift. The crag face of High Tor rises from the River Derwent to a height of 120 metres. The tor dominates the surrounding dale and is renowned for being the last place in England where eagles nested. It is also a key location in the novel, where a minor character, a local climber, fell to his death back in the 1960s. If you look closely (centre right), you can see the white dot of a climber halfway up the tor. Just below the climber, a distinct line can be seen cutting across the crag face. This is the Giddy Edge.

… the smallest of way signs, barely noticeable, beside a narrow mud track: Giddy Edge one-way system, no entry. The path became narrower, leading through a tunnel of overhanging branches and crag. He had to duck and pat-a-cake along the jagged rock face to his right…

The aptly named Giddy Edge is a ridiculously narrow, unfenced ‘path’ that winds along the cliff face of High Tor. You can just make out the houses and main road below. I only ever managed to walk halfway because I’m terrified of heights. There is a bench partway along, and I’d sit there, staring out across the valley, imagining the life of George Fern, the climber who fell to his death. He was a free-soloist, climbing without harnesses or ropes.

She strolled along the bay, just below the isolate, Slow Mile Bridge, spanning the northern tip of the lake…

This image shows the road bridge across Ladybower Reservoir in the Upper Derwent Valley (almost the exact same spot the novel’s cover image was taken). Ladybower sits about 20 miles to the north of Matlock, but, for the purposes of the book, I moved the lake to the outskirts of Matlock and named it Jawbone Lake, and renamed the bridge Slow Mile Bridge. This is the bridge that CJ crashes through at the beginning of the novel. It is by far the most important location in the book.

The full moon and swatch of stars lit the surrounding bowl of hills in an insipid, blue-white light, picking out scalloped ice in boot-shaped puddles […] Ahead of them, rowing boats sat frozen into the ice beside a jetty, and, in the far distance, police searchlights illuminated the crash site…

This is the jetty at Ladybower. You can see the bridge and neighbouring shoreline in the distance. I spent a lot of time sitting on that jetty, taking notes; the distance helped me to visualize key moments in the novel better. This is not only the location of the crash site but it’s also the spot where Rabbit, the other main protagonist in the novel, comes to fly her kite and commune with her dead son. It is the spot where Joe meets Rabbit for the first time.

Across the lake, he eyed the crested silhouettes of hills and the flat sweep of shore, and spotted a figure flying a red kite…

I spent a lot of time walking along valley bottoms, exploring the neighbouring towns and villages, heading across the moors scouting for locations, settings for key scenes in the novel. Sitting in forests, beside rivers, atop desolate tors, listening to the wildlife, thinking about the novel’s plot, taking notes, trying to nail the descriptions of the physical world and my emotional responses to it. And because I lived in Matlock for six months, I found it much easier to bring the valleys back to life once I’d left.

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Landscapes can act as agents of positive change or protection, or be malign and life threatening – this is not to be confused with pathetic fallacy, of course. Landscapes can be drawn as characters in their own right, without giving them human emotion. I don’t like to see landscapes used as mere backdrops, or as a method to create mood (god forbid). Landscapes can be catalysts, unpredictable antagonists, with their own particular history, habitus, and nomenclature.

It might seem strange that I’ve now included a photograph of the Manhattan Bridge, but this is where the story of Jawbone Lake began. The man in the picture is one of my best friends, Adrian Briscoe, a filmmaker from Brooklyn. Just over 10 years ago, Adrian was in the UK visiting me when he received a phone call to say that his mother had driven off a bridge and been killed. Three months later, he phoned to say that he wasn’t coping. I flew to New York to see him.

He wasn’t ready to talk about his mother, or what happened on the night of the crash. Instead, before he headed to work every morning, we went to DUMBO (down under Manhattan Bridge overpass) so he could fly a kite under the bridge. I’d watch him flying the kite, communing with his thoughts. It had a powerful effect on me, seeing him so alone in his grief, unreachable. Seven years later, I started work on Jawbone Lake, and for a long time I was completely unaware that this was the experience I was writing about.

She flies the kite with such style and technique, she has it trained like a bird of prey. Joined by two strands of tense string, by the invisible tug and heft of the wind, something comes together within her. She watches the lake churning the water, churning the past, and thinks about Jasper down in Coldwater village, the clutch of buildings beneath the lake, playing with his ancestors on the village green, her mother keeping a watchful eye over him. She sees a future version of him as a wire-haired, scruffy schoolboy, crying on his first day at junior school, the kite some kind of interface with the afterworld, and at this moment she experiences something like rapture.

The book is dedicated to Adrian.

Jawbone Lake is out now in paperback.

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