Jim Crace at Foyles

IMG00769-20130219-1931There is endless fascination in listening to writers talk about writing and their personal approach to it.

Every one is different; for each who extols the necessity of ‘writing what you know’, there are ten who insist that you must make stuff up, and for the ten who insist on years of research before setting pen to paper, there’s one who insists that you should just make stuff up.  There are the planners, setting out the skeleton of each chapter before writing anything, and then there are those who collect bits of pieces of writing together in files before they can work out what story it is they’re telling.  There are gushers and miniaturists, hand writers and iPad-ers.  For whatever aspect of character and approach you can find, it is also possible to find the polar opposite.

Maybe I’m just looking for reassurance that my own rather haphazard approach is as valid as any other.

Jim Crace (JC) is a writer whose work I admire, and as I have just read his new novel ‘Harvest‘, when a friend told me that he would be speaking at Foyles bookshop, I booked a place straight away.

He is a speaker to whom is very easy to listen, and was thought provoking in his analysis  of his own writing style.  He explained that while he might have tried to write according to what others might regard as a better way, he always returned to his own voice, which he described as the writing voice I have been given.  This voice is rhythmic, moralistic and serious, but not autobiographical .

JC suggested that his happy life is antithetical to the production of fiction inspired by the ‘use what you know’ principal, as fiction doesn’t like happiness, long contended marriages and well adjusted children.  Readers want to experience drama through fiction rather than experience it in life.

An attempt at a novel inspired by autobiography was abandoned, on the advice of his agent, after 30,000 words.  A couple of days after taking the decision to stop writing, despondent, he and his wife took a journey from their home in Birmingham to an art exhibition in London.  On the train, near Watford Gap, a generally unprepossessing space between two tiny hillocks, run through by a motorway, railway lines, home to a service station the butt of many jokes, and two rivers, one of which flows to the sea on the east coast and the other to the west, he noticed the ridge and furrow patterns in the surrounding fields.

It was that pattern in the landscape which started him thinking about the centuries of agricultural activity in England; that one of the important things about the country is that it has been occupied for so many years that there are layers of human habitation and history everywhere.  It is not possible to walk anywhere where no-one has walked before you; and that we are surrounded by the signs of history if we care to notice them; it’s all drenched in narrative.

At the watercolour exhibition the picture which jumped out at him was one of a bird’s eye view of field enclosures. This, together with his ‘Watford Gap Moment’, started him thinking about land clearances and the people affected; and that even if he wrote something ‘historical’ it could still have contemporary relevance as there have always been, and still are, people being turned off land.

He quoted Hilary Mantel’s ‘rule’ that in historical fiction if you are going to include a fact, then you must ensure that it is correct.  JC said he didn’t adhere to that tenet.  For him, facts create constraints on narrative imagination – the less you know, the more you can imagine.

The questions from the audience after he had read from Harvest, focussed on his stated intent that this would be his last novel.  Some people were worried about how he would express his creativity without fiction to write(!).  He assured us that he still has plans to write some natural history books, (which, with his love for making things up may not be entirely based on science), and that, after many years of sitting alone in his work room in his garage, he has other creative plans outside….and there’s always the possibility that he will change his mind and find the right ‘autobiographical’ book to write.

So, here’s to a Watford Gap Moment for us all today.

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Layers of History

Will  Self‘s latest novel, the Booker short listed Umbrella, is set in Friern Hospital. I know this not because I’ve read the book, but because it is in any blurb about the work, and because I heard him talking about it on the Today programme on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago.  I specifically noted the fact because it’s where I live, and because I was a little bit offended by the rather patronising way he spoke about the current residents.

His novel is set in the 1920s and focusses on long term residents, sent to the hospital after suffering encephalitis and falling into a coma.  I will get around to reading the book at some point, but it was the interview I heard (for which, very cheesily, they’d managed to find the only remaining clanging door around which to jangle a few keys),  that prompted me to think about this building and its various incarnations.

I am very interested in the evocation of a sense of place in both what I read and what I write.  Being able to imagine where the action is taking place, what the characters are seeing and experiencing is a vital part of the enjoyment of fiction for me.  And any occupied place will have layers and layers of human life etched upon it, from before a building was constructed, through its various incarnations and long into the future when we are no longer here to witness it

Any congregation of people will be the source of a multiplicity of stories.  I have long been fascinated by the history of the building in  as I have seen, over the period of my residence, how it has changed and evolved and become something entirely different to what it was when I first came here.

There is a plaque in the building which records the opening of the Middlesex Asylum for the Insane in 1849 by Prince Albert, and when it was first opened it was one of the new asylums built in green areas on the outskirts of London.  A large Italianate design with a fancy central dome over the chapel, it contained the longest corridor in Europe and was in a huge parcel of land with its own railway station. One area of the parkland was rolled flat and true for the cricket pitch, and a verandahed pavilion was built to one side.  The perimeter wall was built of brick and was, like that of a prison, too high to see over.  Horrors took place inside.

Renamed Colney Hatch, it became the byword for where aggravated mothers would threaten to send misbehaving children to frighten them into obedience.  And, when in the 1980s the patient population was dispersed into the community, locally there was near unanimity that the building should be demolished to banish the specter of all the terrible things that had happened inside.  Instead it was only partially taken down, and has been converted to flats.

I was one of the early residents, and when I moved in, everywhere was a sea of mud, and apart from the small wing at the western end, the rest of the site was derelict.  At weekends I would make tours of inspection to peer into the parts of the building where grass sprouted from the drains and startled pigeons would fly out through the broken windows when I approached.  It was an extremely creepy place, and sometimes I would have to run outside into the fresh air, so certain had I been that someone had walked up behind me; someone who, when I spun around to see them, wasn’t there.

Gradually, as the refurbishment progressed, (and there was better site health and safely protection after a child fell down an unprotected hole) the traces of the past disappeared, and new life laid itself over the building.  Babies have been born here and the cycle of life has made another rotation.

There is a whole new population here now, as eclectic a collection as there ever was, I’m sure, but all here voluntarily (apart perhaps from the boy band members immured here routinely, to serve out their indentures to their promoters).

BP Portrait Award 2012 at the National Portrait Gallery

‘Swallow’ by Alexandra Gardner, Oil on Linen

Sometimes I really do have to wonder at myself, when the questions that occur to me most frequently when I’m going around art exhibitions or galleries have little or nothing to do with the art.  I’m curious as to where the pieces have come from, or who owns them, or who made the decision to paint the walls that particular shade of red; things that have nothing to do with composition or choice of materials or scale.  It’s always something to do with a story, a puzzle or a near irrelevant observation.

So my irrelevant question about the Portrait Award 2012, currently nearing closure at the National Portrait Gallery revolves around how they choose the paintings to use on the publicity flyers, posters and the selection process for the works that are reproduced as postcards, and how, if at all, these relate to the judging system.

Now, I’m not claiming to have made an exhaustive, nor even remotely scientific study, but it seemed that there is very little overlap between the two, in fact only one work appears to have been selected by both the publicity department as likely to attract the public to the exhibition and the portraits selected by the judges as prize winners.

It’s curiosity, nothing more.  Maybe it’s something to do with copyright, or the willingness of the artist or subject to appear on the sides of buses, but if it’s been done on the basis of purely aesthetic grounds, I think my taste coincides more closely with that of the marketing team more closely than it does with the panel of judges.

Having said all of that, this year I enjoyed the exhibition more than I have in some previous years.  There are some extraordinary portraits on display, fulfilling that objective of portraiture to reveal something of the character of the subject, telling something of their story, and there were many there that I’d quite fancy meeting for a chat over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Making Things Last

I’ve often been teased in the past for leaving flowers on display long after, to other people’s eyes, they have lost their beauty.  I’ve left roses in a vase until all that is left is a dark, brittle shell of their former fresh brightness, and I’ve cut small still flowering shoots off  freesia when the main stem has shrivelled to brown, put them in fresh water and kept them going for a few more days.

Fresh cut flowers are such a luxury that it seems only right to make them last as long as possible, and to enjoy them at every stage of their life.

Tulips are a harbinger of spring.  Although now it does feel sometimes that they are available all year round, they still provide a feeling of eager anticipation of a change in the season.  I love the way, once released from their paper wrapping, they twist and reach towards the light.  Usually they end by shedding all of their petals, but this bunch, which I’ve had for over two weeks, has faded without shedding.  They are sitting in front of me on the table where I’ve been working, and each morning I expect to see them denuded and gone, but somehow they are hanging on.

The petals look tissue paper thin now.  That one standing tall in the middle reminds me of something in a Flemish still life; it should be against a black backdrop with a pewter plate and a wizened apple in the foreground.

The temptation to reach out to touch them is strong, but so far I’ve resisted, as I think they will collapse at the slightest contact.  So long as I don’t shake the table, they’ll be good for another day at least……..

In Praise of Difference

Yesterday I posted a couple of photos of the results of my efforts at collage this last week.

After we had reached a mid point in the afternoon, we swapped our efforts with a fellow  class mate, and attempted to draw their collage.  As it was done without any reference to the original still life, a form of second degree once removed, it proved to be another fascinating exercise.

A couple of aspects of this are particularly interesting.  Firstly, the very different response each of us had to exactly the same stimulus; neither is intrinsically better or worse than the other; the very dissimilarity is the point of studying someone else’s work.  It is perhaps one of the transferable skills that I have acquired through all the writing workshops I’ve done, that my response is as valid as yours, our ability to realise what we are attempting may differ, but we each see something a bit different in the world.  You don’t know what it will look like unless you have a go.

Secondly, that just because it’s flat and made from torn up paper, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to draw.

This is the collage made by my classmate D

This is the beginning of my sketch of it

And just to recap, for the ‘compare and contrast’, this is the still life arrangement and my collage attempt….

Trying a New Perspective

Just as I’ve dealt with the repairs and maintenance inside my flat, something is happening outside.  The scaffolding that had appeared along the side of the building while I was in Scotland has, in the last couple of days, spread around the end and across the bay window of my living room.  The progress is infinitesimally slow as the men seem only to work in 10 minute spells every hour or so.  There was a lot of clunking, banging and the ‘beep beep’ of a construction vehicle in stately movement,  yesterday morning at around 8:30, but it stopped after a few minutes, leading to a long period of silence.

Because I’ve decided not to rehang the Austrian blinds that I used to have in the window (largely because they’d been up for 10 years and look like it, and because I got the strings in a tangle…..), I had to leave the curtain closed so the non-workmen couldn’t look straight in and see me in my dressing gown, drinking coffee on the sofa.

Instead, I opened curtains behind the sofa, which I usually have closed, and saw what a beautiful morning it was.  This is the first time these grasses have grown since they were cut right down a couple of years ago, but I’d not really seen them before, set off against the unexpectedly blue sky, catching golden flashes as they undulated in the breeze.

So now I’d don’t feel at all guilty about doing a bit of Elizabeth Barrett reclining on my chaise-long; in fact it feels like a positively virtuous thing to be doing.

(But gird yourselves for more scaffolding stories, as I’ve the feeling this is going to go on for a while, and I’m going to find something positive in it……really, I am.)

Comfort – A Photo

From Early Morning

The idea of comfort will vary from day to day, circumstance to circumstance.  On a cold wet day it might be to come in out of the rain and hold a warm cup of tea in your hands; or on a searingly hot day it could be  a blast of air conditioning and ice in your drink.

I’m back at Cove Park for a few days, and as soon as I had nested in my cube. a converted freight container, a snug little room all of my own, and had taken a moment to absorb the view again, I felt immediately comfortable.

Until Dusk

The Fruits of Fear and Failure

Several months ago I had a conversation with an acquaintance about why she didn’t drive.  I had assumed her lack of car and devotion to public transport, and specifically taxis, was an ethical position, but her explanation was more surprising , that she was only prepared to try things at which she would excel, and at her age she thought she’d be no good at driving, so wouldn’t attempt it.

I think about this conversation quite frequently as, although there is a momentary respect for a person holding out against the general trend, driving is rather a life skill that comes in handy in all manner of situations.  And while I have some sympathy with that desire to only excel, there are many things that I’ve enjoyed and experienced only because I tried something new and unknown.

It also begs the question of how you know how competent or otherwise you’re going to be at something until you try.

The conversation came to mind a couple of times while I was on holiday recently.  I’m not particularly confident swimming in the sea; I think the product of watching too many horror and disaster movies of people being dragged under the waves, or running aground on rocks, and an over-active imagination, but I was persuaded into the sea in a large pool area off Speightstown.  It was enjoyable mainly for the cooling properties of the water, but, as my confidence grew, I swam further away from shore and enjoyed it more.

What stalled me from further exploration was the fear of the rocky reef that protected the swimming area, but then, on my last day in Barbados, I was persuaded to attempt snorkelling out beyond the rocks to see the fish on the other side.

‘It’s OK to be afraid.’ my friend said, and held my hand until I had swum over the rocks, pointing out the multitude of little fishes that there hiding there on the way.  It wasn’t far, but it felt like a milestone of sorts.

At the same time, for the last few months I’ve been sending out my first novel trying to find representation for it.  In the round of rejections it’s received thus far, I’m learning resilience, as well as finding amusement in some of the outrageously patronising and self important things some people say and write.  (My current favourite is an instruction in one literary agent’s submission guidelines not to send them any manuscripts which have been widely rejected already.)

On a good day it makes me redouble my efforts.

But it’s OK to be afraid.

The Stories of Things

St James

Thanks to comments from Jill on my post a couple of days ago about recycling, I can see there’s still more mileage in that subject.  Talking about taking other people’s cast-offs and turning them into something beautiful or thought provoking reminded me of  Cornelia Parker‘s work ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’.

The raw material for the work was bits of silver she collected from junk shops, and then crushed with a steamroller.  The value of the silver pieces, special items, perhaps given as a gift, or engraved for a special occasion is gone once the people who gave or received them, or remember why they are special, are gone; and there is a sadness in that, a story lost.

It set me thinking about the stories associated with the things I have in my flat.  As I sit here and look around me I remember where I acquired pretty much everything I can see.  To you it would look like a random collection of furniture and knick knacks; possibly not uncomfortable but not overly colour co-ordinated, nothing of any great intrinsic value nor with much second hand value. But to me they trace a version of my life history and experiences.

I have a three piece ‘Utility’ suite first bought second hand by my mother when I was a child, it’s had several incarnations under different covers, but it would be hard now to imagine my room without it.  On the walls I have pictures I’ve bought on trips to Hong Kong, Nepal, South Africa, Spain, Tonga and Japan and I can recall very specifically where and when I acquired each of them.

I haggled over the carpet in the bazaar in Marrakesh, and my sister made the curtains and the throw on the back of the sofa.  The rug I snuggle into if I get chilly watching the television came from Ireland.  The coffee table was a cast off from my parents; they bought it in the 1960s and I cannot remember a time when it was not in our house.  You’d think I would have replaced it by now, but my search for a desirable, affordable alternative is now many years old.  But anyway, thanks to ‘Mad Men’ aren’t the ’60s fashionable again?

A couple of weeks ago my friend A, with whom I shared many of my Moscow experiences, visited the flat for the first time with her children.  They all paused and examined my collection of Russian geegaws, the Lomonosov cups and saucers, the Palekh lacquer boxes and carved wooden figures, comparing mine with A’s extensive range,

‘I didn’t know you had one of those. ‘

‘I’ve always liked yours more.’

marking the significance of all those shared memories.

One Woman’s Junk is Another’s Treasuretrove

I’ve just been struggling with the lids of the recycling bins outside.  There are separate green plastic wheeley bins for a random selection of refuse, and I do my best to be a good citizen; to sort and keep tin cans, plastic bottles, paper and cardboard separate, but in a small kitchen it can be a challenge to store it, so I’m forever taking bits and pieces out.  And the lids get me every time, falling back on my hand, no matter how speedy I think I’m being.

Every time I go out to those green bins  it reminds me that organised mandatory  recycling, under threat of penalty, as we are in London, is a feature of a wealthy, prosperous society.  People who live with less, have less to throw away and they use and reuse everything they have until it is impossible to use it any more; not because they prefer to be ‘green’ and ecologically responsible, but because they can’t afford to waste anything.

I like to think I keep waste to a minimum, but it remains a fact that if I threw nothing away I’d soon be crowded out of my home.  So I sort my rubbish, take things to charity shops and try not to acquire more stuff that needs ‘management’.

It’s  a couple of years since I went on a big trekking holiday, but when I was a regular on high altitude trips there was a routine that at the end of the trek everyone would leave a piece of equipment or clothing for the local support team.  When the group leader first suggested it, I always felt a bit embarrassed offering up something that, after a couple of weeks up a mountain, might not even be that clean, and was invariably told not to worry and hand it over.

At the flat I lived in in Moscow in the mid 1990s the communal rubbish bin was a huge battered green open topped skip with sides so high that some of the smaller residents had to stand on tiptoe to empty their buckets of waste over the side.  I soon learned that I was rare in lining my kitchen bin with a plastic bag; most people didn’t waste such a valuable item when all you needed to do was wash out the bin after you’d emptied it.

Only true waste went into the skip; anything that might have a future life was left lying beside it: small pieces of furniture, old bags, general bric a brac, and in no time it would be gone, spirited away by someone who had a use for it.

When I left the city I gave away all the fully functioning things I had acquired during my stay in that expat roundabout exchange of table lamps, fans and generally ‘useful until you find something better’ stuff that I’m sure goes on the world over.  But I was still left with a pile of wonky, broken things: a suitcase with a big hole in the side, shoes ruined by snow, a winter jacket that had frayed at the cuffs; I packed them all up together and left them by the bin and rushed back inside, fearing that someone would run after me to tell me off.  Of course no-one did, and when I went out again, a couple of hours later, it was all gone.

I sometimes wonder who took it, and what they did with it.

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