Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Three things

March 7, 2016

Last week was an exciting one, because THREE pieces of my work were published in various places.

Spectator

Here is my piece about book thieves in the Spectator. Bookshops might seem like sanctuaries, but they are in fact full of thieves pocketing everything from Mr Men to Ottolenghi… And you can also hear me talking about it on the Spectator’s podcast here. I come in at 18.50, just after all the men have finished talking about the much more minor issues of Donald Trump and the EU.

Cockfosters TLS review

Then here is my review of Helen Simpson’s absolutely amazing collection of short stories Cockfosters, published in The Times Literary Supplement. Apologies for the pay-wall avoiding low-quality photo.

The Fishermen by Obioma

Last, but by no means least, I am thrilled to be writing for this lovely website Five Books. They have the ingenious idea of asking people to recommend Five Books on a certain subject, relevant to their own work. I talked to the very charming and intelligent Chigozie Obioma – whose debut novel The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – about boyhood and growing up. You can read it here.

I’d love to know what you think of them!

Now I am on a train on my way to Scotland to walk through the beautiful highlands while talking about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel for an Emily’s Walking Book Club special at writers’ retreat Moniack Mhor. Heaven. Happy March everyone. More soon.

Moniack Mhor

Park Notes

June 13, 2014

Life chez Emilybooks has been terribly busy over the past week, and I’m sorry for the delayed post. Some friends came to stay, prompting a jolly few days of chatting, wandering and lazing, rather than concentrated reading, So I’m afraid thoughts on A Portrait of a Lady won’t appear until Monday.

I thought, however, that I better reveal our secret little hop back over to London. The husband and I spent Tuesday and Wednesday back in the big (VERY BIG after tiny Lucca) smoke, feeling a little like we were skiving school. London was lovely and cool after the heat of Italy, and looked especially beautiful in the sunshine, with everyone out on the pavements and so sunny tempered. I loved having a proper strong cup of tea in a caff, accompanied by toast and Marmite. It was such a joy to be able to chat so easily to the waiter about a mutual love of Marmite and the weather (of course) after so many weeks of suffering the painful embarrassment of being able to say little other than ‘Grazie’ several times.

Park Notes launchThere were a couple of reasons for this little jaunt. Firstly, it was the book launch for Park Notes – a beautiful collection of writings and pictures inspired by Regent’s Park and curated by Sarah Pickstone, whose striking paintings I wrote about here. Very excitingly, the book includes an essay on George Eliot by me!

What makes it particularly thrilling is that I am giddy with admiration for so many of the other contributors. Of course there are all the dead ones – Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield to name a few – but among the living are the formidably intelligent Marina Warner, Olivia Laing – one of the most elegant writers of place, insightful Lara Feigel, brilliant Iain Sinclair and the mighty Ali Smith. And all this interspersed with Sarah Pickstone’s gorgeous work.

I could go on, but feel it’s in rather bad taste to review one’s own work … So I will leave you with one of my favourite quotations from the book, which comes from Ali Smith’s reliably inspiring short story ‘The Definite Article’:

I stepped out of myself and into the park, I stepped off the pavement and into a place where there’s never a conclusion, where regardless of wars, tragedies, losses, finds, the sting of the sweetness of what’s gone in a life, or the preoccupations of any single time, any single being, on it goes, the open-air theatre of flowers, trees, birds, bees, the open vision at the heart of the old city.

Of course there’s nothing I’d love more than to know what you make of the book. You can buy a copy from Daunt’s here, or please do go and support your local independent bookshop.

There was another reason for our brief return… It was time for the twenty-week scan for baby Emilybooks! I know I’ve been rather secretive about it here, but it’s the sort of news that is quite hard to slip into a post about EM Forster.

All was looking very well, and it was wonderful to see the little person wriggling around, even giving us a little wave. Might I also add this to my defence of such excessive ice cream consumption in recent weeks? Calcium, you see, is vital to help build all those little bones.

Ice cream time in Lucca

Henry James is coming on Monday. Have a lovely sunny weekend!

The Next Big Thing Meme

December 12, 2012

The splendid novelist Anna Stothard has tagged me in ‘the Next Big Thing meme’, which means this week you get a bonus blog post from me. It’s a chance to tell you a little bit about my novel, which, let’s hope, will be the Next Big Thing.

What is the title of your next book?

A London House … I think.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction. Most of it is set in the present day, but there are also some historical chapters.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’m afraid I just don’t know for most of my characters, but I would love Bill Nighy to play Roger, an eccentric old man who lives on a houseboat. Anna, the main character, is trickier. Perhaps Romola Garai, who seems to have a habit of playing the main part in film adaptations of many of my favourite books.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

One night, two girls break into a derelict house, where the air is thick with stories of the people who have lived there in the past.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Perhaps it’s morbid, but I absolutely love buildings in various states of decay. I love to imagine them in their former glory, and wonder who might once have looked out of the broken windows, or trod on the rotting floorboards.

A couple of years ago, bulldozers were hard at work on a big school near where I live. There was a stage in its demolition when the whole back wall of the building had been taken off, so that you could see into each of the different classrooms and each one was painted a different colour. It was like looking into a box of paints, an image which really tugged at me. I began to imagine pulling off the walls of other houses, looking into all their rooms, painted and wallpapered in different colours and designs. It made me think about the marks and impressions people make on their houses by living in them, and how many stories lie hidden there in the smallest things.

Several books have helped to inspire me with my one – here are a few of them:

Inspiring books

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My agent is Andrew Kidd at Aitken Alexander.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Just over a year and a half.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Hitchcock and Picasso both have cameo roles.

Now it’s my turn to tag – too thrilling! Wayne Gooderham – journalist, blogger, collector of second-hand books and curator of an exhibition of book dedications now on at Foyles, and Samantha Ellis – playwright, blogger and writer of a fascinating-sounding book about literary heroines, consider yourself the next bearers of the meme.

And So I Have Thought of You – The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald

November 26, 2012

I have been reading these letters for many months, a few at a time, at odd in-between moments – in the bath, waiting for the kettle to boil, or for the toast to be done. Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my literary heroines, and this chunky collection of letters has been a trusty companion, a reliable source for a quick fix of inspiration, a smile, and a sigh of relief that such a good writer existed.

I love the precision of Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing and often, when I’ve been angsting over how to begin an article or how to write something clearly, I’ve read one of her letters for inspiration, sitting down and trying to write the piece straight away afterwards, in the vain hope that some of her style might have seeped into my own. I could never hope to be half as good a writer, but certainly reading a letter has never failed to help.

The feeling I get when reading other people’s letters is the glee of an eavesdropper. All these nuggets of gossip and in-jokes and reassurances and wonderings and news. It is such an astonishing privilege to have this window into a personal, off-the-record side of a great writer. Even though it’s perfectly legitimate to read these published letters, it is hard not to feel those butterflies of naughtiness, of seeing something you oughtn’t, the exquisite fear of being caught.

There is so much in these letters, so many stories – some just hinted at, others sketched out, and others which develop over several years. Each holds its own distinct pleasure.

The hints are often gossip about other writers. There’s this to one of her editors, Stuart Profitt:

I realise now that you can’t get hold of Malcolm Bradbury, he seems to be made of some plastic or semi-fluid substance which gives way or changes in your hands.

Or this postscript to Stuart Profitt’s predecessor, Richard Ollard:

Poor S. Rushdie, or rich S. Rushdie, whichever you like, that was a publicity campaign that went dreadfully wrong. I don’t think he ought to go into hiding, though. My local Patel grocery on the corner tells me that it is not a dignified act.

She’s so clever in her insults! While I love these flashes of brilliant wit, they leave me longing to find out more about what she thinks on the subjects.

Then there are her sketches. Here is one of Fitzgerald’s finest, which appears in a letter to her daughter Maria, and could easily be lifted straight out of one of her novels. She describes a ‘surrealist tea-party’ in Rye, where the guests were:

a trendy cleric, his dull wife, a long-skirted daughter, going up to read English at Hertford, who evidently hadn’t wanted to come, and Henry James’s manservant (still living in Rye, but with a deaf-aid which had to be plugged into the skirting) who couldn’t really bear to sit down and have tea, but kept springing up and trying to wait on people, with the result that he tripped over the cable – and contributing in a loud, shrill voice remarks like ‘Mr Henry was a heavy man – nearly 16 stone – it was a job for him to push his bicycle uphill’ – in the middle of all the other conversation which he couldn’t hear.

It’s too perfect and had me in stitches over my burning toast!

Then there are the longer stories. The attempt to write L.P. Hartley’s biography, which in the end defeated her; the dire financial straits of her early married life, manifest in instances like being unable to afford to buy towels from John Lewis; her endless attempts to persuade her editor of the worthiness of a book she longed to write about the Poetry Bookshop; the struggle to be recognised as a writer. With respect to this latter strand, her correspondence with her editors at Duckworth, where she began her writing career, is eye-opening. She wrote this to Richard Garnett there:

It worried me terribly when you told me I was only an amateur writer and I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?

It’s too appalling to think of her editor calling her an amateur writer! Later she writes to Colin Haycraft, also at Duckworth, about her decision to move to a different publisher:

You did tell me, you know, that if I went on writing novels you didn’t want it blamed on you and that Anna thought I should do detective stories and also, by the way, that you had too many short novels with sad ending on your hands, and I thought, well, he’s getting rid of me, but in a very nice way. I don’t at all expect you to remember everything you say to 32 authors, but the trouble is we take all these remarks seriously and ourselves too seriously as well, I expect.

Luckily she moved to Harper Collins, where she found a much better editor in Richard Ollard and his successor Stuart Profitt. Reading their letters are a delight, as their warm literary friendship is conjured on the page:

Just to thank you for taking me to the party, I should never have had the resolution to go otherwise and indeed I noticed many people, obviously female novelists, standing about looking at a loss, and I was grateful not to have to do this.

Or here:

Meanwhile I feel that if Angela has gone and mice have got into the air-conditioning the Harper Collins palace must be almost untenable. But I’m so glad that Stuart’s Big Book after many worries is proving such an enormous success – what energy he’s got! If he gets this place in Herefordshire I suppose he will have to arrive up at week-ends and put together the roof and chimneys and then walk miles over Hay Bluff &c for exercise, but I expect that will be as nothing to him.

Her letters to Chris Carduff, her American editor, are also a treat. I especially love the fact that he calls his cat Charlotte Mew, after the poet associated with the Poetry Bookshop. It is to him that she drops this perfect line:

on the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.

Gosh these letters were such a pleasure to read! The only sad thing about them is the gaps – the missing years and people, thanks to faulty archiving or tragic incidents like the sinking of her houseboat. I see that Hermione Lee is writing a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald; she’s written a little about it here for the Guardian. I am literally on the edge of my seat with excitement for it – I’m sure that Hermione Lee will succeed in filling in some of these gaps, fleshing out those things that are only hinted at in these letters, shaping everything into a powerful narrative. Until then, I will happily read and reread her novels, and perhaps I might just start again on these witty, wry, wonderful letters.

Under the Net

October 24, 2012

I found Under the Net a terrifically inspiring novel. In part, of course, there’s Iris Murdoch’s astonishingly good writing – the sentences like colourful silk, her talent spread with such luxurious thickness across the pages. (Can you believe it’s her first novel?!) But moreover, it was thanks to the main character, Jake.

Jake, or, to give him his full name, James Donaghue, is a writer who is somewhat lost in the world. We meet him just as he’s being turfed out of his Earl’s Court lodgings, and accompany him on his subsequent wanderings across London in search of various friends. Drinking steadily – either in pubs or from his own supply kept at Mrs Tinckham’s Soho shop (‘For a long time I have kept a stock of whiskey with Mrs Tinckham in case I ever need a medicinal drink, in quiet surroundings, in central London, out of hours’) – Jake is down on his luck. His wanderings see him sink lower and lower until eventually he stops wandering and can’t bring himself to get out of bed. It is indeed a low point, but luckily Jake is made of stronger stuff and pulls himself together. The novel ends with him looking at his old manuscripts and feeling that he has potential:

These things were mediocre, I saw it. But I saw too, as it were straight through them, the possibility of doing better – and this possibility was present to me as a strength which cast me lower and raised me higher than I had ever been before.

It’s a wonderful feeling of optimism founded on truth and realism, rather than naïve illusions. I finished the novel feeling excited for Jake’s future, feeling that he was at the beginning of the path to success. For a writer suffering from her own little crisis of confidence, this was the perfect novel to read.

It seems nonsensical, but Under the Net can best be described as a poetical farce, underlined by philosophy. It is a comedy of errors, of everyone being in love with the wrong person, chasing around after each other in a complete muddle, but written about in perfectly beautiful prose. Underlying its silliness is the idea – discussed by Jake and his friend Hugo – that language isn’t able to convey the truth, that everything we say is only an approximation, that ‘the whole language is a machine for making falsehoods’. They decide that words lie, but actions don’t. (Incidentally, they have this discussion while taking part in a cold-cure experiment – ‘The experiment was going forward at a delightful country house where one could stay indefinitely and be inoculated with various permutations of colds and cures’ – a delightfully dotty situation.)

Jake – a writer – relies upon language, this apparently false medium. But the book sees him stop writing and rely on actions. He looks for people, he follows them, he gets physical work, he does things. He turns from words to actions. But of course the trick of the novel is that it is all a written thing, his actions are related via Murdoch’s language – and very beautiful, wonderful language it is too. So are all his actions, as they are related by words, no more than lies? Is the whole book a lie?

Well it is fiction – a creative lie of sorts – and yet it is told so well that the story has written itself into my understanding of London as much as the city’s real history.

I love the Londonness of Under the Net. The other night I found myself wandering home across Blackfriars Bridge, looking up Farringdon Road towards Holborn Viaduct and thought instantly of this passage:

The sky opened out above me like an unfurled banner, cascading with stars and blanched by the moon. The black hulls of barges darkened the water behind me and murky towers and pinnacles rose indistinctly on the other bank. I swam well out into the river. It seemed enormously wide and as I looked up and down stream I could see on one side the dark pools under Blackfriars Bridge, and on the other the pillars of Southwark Bridge glistening under the moon. The whole expanse of river was running with light. It was like swimming in quicksilver.

Yes, that’s right, Jake has gone swimming in the Thames. It is the result of a pub crawl that began in Holborn, meandered around the City and ended in this swim, achieved with drunken canniness by catching the tide on the turn, so avoiding being pulled out to sea by the current.

Scene after scene has etched itself onto my London map. There is the bit where Jake and Finn (his right hand man) steal a film star dog – Mister Mars – from a bookie’s Chelsea apartment. There’s Jake’s long walk home from a film studio in Deptford, having escaped the police. There’s Mrs Tinckham’s shop in Soho, of course. Funniest of all – I think – is the scene where Jake is sitting on the fire escape of Sadie’s Marylebone flat, eavesdropping on her conversation with the bookie when he realises he is being watched, with some degree of concern, by the neighbours. They decide that Jake must be ‘an escaped loonie’, and the scene builds to a comic climax when the charwoman fetches ‘an extremely long cobweb brush’:

“Shall I poke ’im with my brush and see what ’e does?” she asked; and she forthwith mounted the fire escape and brought the brush into play, delivering me a sharp jab on the ankle.

Jake decides ‘this was too much’ and descends the fire escape. The neighbours confront him in the street and so, ‘uttering a piercing hiss I suddenly rushed forward toward them’, making them scatter ‘in terror’. Ha ha!! Welbeck Street will never be the same again.

Perhaps it is all lies, but lies so brilliantly told, they win over truth any day.

It’s truly a magnificent book and moments from it will accompany me on my own London wanderings. I shall just leave you with one last brilliant quotation because I can’t resist:

Starting a novel is opening a door on a misty landscape; you can still see very little but you can smell the earth and feel the wind blowing.

What a perfectly Autumnal vision of reading.

All Passion Spent

July 3, 2012

I read Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent in a completely heavenly way. I was recovering from a Friday night hangover and the husband had vanished off to lug a load of sandbags around in an architectural manner. I made a pot of coffee, a huge bowl of muesli (my Achilles’ heel, see my last post) dotted with leftover strawberries from the night before, and climbed back into bed where I lay reading All Passion Spent from start to finish, as the sun streamed through the windows and my headache gently evaporated. I can think of no better way of spending a Saturday morning.

I came to All Passion Spent with a feeling of relief, of at last, finally, phew. I have wanted to read something by Vita Sackville-West for such a long time. First at university, when studying Woolf, there she was, endlessly popping up her elegant head and begging for a little more attention than there was time for. Then for my literary hen party (more details here) we had a beautiful afternoon strolling around her home, Sissinghurst. I since learnt that we were taken for a troop of literary lesbians, come to pay our respects to this ultimate literary lesbian. Apparently they get quite a few such groups, and rather fewer hen parties.

The gardens at Sissinghurst are famously beautiful, and they are definitely the most beautiful gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the world. They make the little rusty bathtub with its heroic raspberry bush on my windswept roof terrace look rather miserable, actually, but no matter. To go there is to enter garden heaven. I remember reading about Vita Sackville-West’s gardening in Alexandra Harris’s remarkable book Romantic Moderns:

To plant bulbs in the middle of a war was to assert one’s firm belief in the future. She made a point of planting a slow-growing magnolia in spring 1939, wanting to believe that there would be someone there to see it in a hundred years time.

I think it’s a wonderful – and a very feminine – way of asserting one’s defiance.

So it was with joy that I climbed back into bed with my copy of All Passion Spent and a feast of a breakfast. Every page, sentence and word were a delight to read.

The book opens with the death of Lord Slane, a great statesman, leaving his children, who are mostly in their sixties and perfectly ghastly, deciding what to do with their newly-widowed mother, Lady Slane. They devise a frightful scheme whereby she will be parcelled off between them, paying each of them for her keep for a few months of the year. Lady Slane, ‘the very incarnation of placidity’, quietly defies them and plants a slow-growing magnolia.

Not really. She quietly defies them and says she’s going to move into a little house up in Hampstead. Back then, in 1931, Hampstead was rather less chi-chi and rather more bohemian than it is today, and to these residents of Chelsea’s Elm Park Gardens, it might as well have been Peckham. We get a lovely scene of Lady Slane shuffling off on the underground (she is eighty-eight after all) up to Hampstead, her mind running off along little paths as the stops go by.

Lady Slane saw the house thirty years ago, but by some miracle, it is still there, waiting – as it were – for her to rent it. The eccentric Mr Bucktrout, owner and agent, is happy for her to rent it, so long as he can come round for tea once a week. So Lady Slane settles down up in Hampstead, and the rest of the book is given over to this quiet ending of her days, with the company of Mr Bucktrout, her loyal French maid, a jack-of-all-trades, and Mr Fitz-George – a long-lost acquaintance who first met her when she was the very beautiful Vicereine of India.

You’ve probably gathered that there’s not a tremendous amount of action. Most of the narrative is given over to Lady Slane’s memories, as she sifts through parts of her life, making her peace with it, looking back at who she was and what she’s become. This reflective nature of the prose allows for some interesting meanderings on various ideas. For instance, we get this on happiness:

But what was happiness? Had she been happy? That was a strange, clicking word to have coined – meaning something definite to the whole English-speaking race – a strange clicking word with its short vowel and its spitting double p’s and its pert tip-tilted y at the end, to express in two syllables a whole summary of life. Happy. But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? It meant, if it meant anything at all, that some uneasy desire wanted black to be black, and white, white; it meant that in the jungle of the terrors of life, the tiny creeping creatures sought reassurance in a formula …

That night, I stayed up embarrassingly late leafing through a volume of my (heavenly) collection of Virginia Woolf’s letters, picking out the ones to Vita Sackville-West written at around the time of All Passion Spent. For, as well as being her lover, Woolf was Vita Sackville-West’s publisher; indeed, the Hogarth Press made quite a sum of money from both All Passion Spent and her previous novel The Edwardians, which were both bestsellers. I hoped Virginia Woolf might have written some thoughts on All Passion Spent, or offered some advice, one writer to another. But then I found the following letter to Vita on Friday 25th April 1930, sent from Monk’s House:

“I don’t think I can stand, even the Nicolsons, on happiness for three quarters of an hour” I said at 8.15.

“Well, we can always shut them off” said Leonard. At 9 I leapt to my feet and cried out,

“By God, I call that first rate!” having listened to every word.

This is (for a wonder) literally true. How on earth have you mastered the art of being subtle, profound, humorous, arch, coy, satirical, affectionate, intimate, profane, colloquial, solemn, sensible, poetical and a dear old shaggy sheep dog – on the wireless? We thought it a triumph: Harold’s too.

Evidently, Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson were on the BBC radio discussing happiness. I suspect that some of the ideas they talked about then, might have seeped into her musings on happiness in All Passion Spent. And Woolf’s litany of affectionate praise for Vita Sackville-West’s art on the wireless is, I think, apt for her writing as well.

I could go on about All Passion Spent for yonks – her thoughts on growing old, on being young, on being a woman, on frustrated dreams, on money, on family … but I shall confine myself to one last particularly lovely passage. Do forgive the very long quotation, but as Virginia Woolf said, she is ‘a dear old shaggy sheep dog’ and it is a very very long sentence which needs to be written out in full. I think it one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read:

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting around this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air, or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, but altering the pace of the progression not by one tittle; never brushing the carriage with their wings; flickering always, and evading; sometimes rushing on ahead, but returning again to tease and to show off, darting between the axles; having an independent and a lovely life; a flock of ragamuffins skimming above the surface of the desert and around the trundling wagon; but Henry, who was travelling on a tour of investigation, could only say ‘Terrible, the ophthalmia among these people – I must really do something about it,’ and, knowing that he was right and would speak to the missionaries, she had withdrawn her attention from the butterflies and transferred it to her duty, determining that when they reached Yezd or Shiraz, or wherever it might be, she also would take the missionaries’ wives to task about the ophthalmia in the villages and would make arrangements for a further supply of boracic to be sent out from England.

But, perversely, the flittering of the butterflies had always remained more important.

All Passion Spent is in many ways a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s polemic A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf argues, among other things, that a woman cannot write fiction without money and a room of her own. She also writes about how the literary tradition is male rather than female and complains that the very sentence which was used so effectively by men was ‘unsuited for a woman’s use’. She argues that a woman’s experience is different from man’s, that what women want to write is different from what men want to write and so they need to find new tools of expression, ‘knocking that into shape for herself’.

Woolf wrote of the moment as ‘an incessant shower of innumerable atoms’, but I rather prefer Vita Sackville-West’s expression of it as ‘the flittering of the butterflies’, darting beautifully and playfully around the male cart which presses ever directly onwards.

And indeed we find this image of the butterfly moment appearing elsewhere in Vita Sackville-West’s writing. Here it is, in Twelve Days in Persia, which she wrote a couple of years earlier:

It is necessary to write if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clasp the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.

Fine inspiration for any writer.

The Accidental

May 29, 2012

I like nothing better than a coincidence, especially when one of the coinciding things is in the book I’m reading.

Last week I wrote about a first-class coincidence which ended up in a trip to Venice. It’s hard to top that one. You might find this week’s coincidence a little more humble, although, for me, just as satisfying.

It was Saturday night. That morning, we had accidentally bought an enormous fish. (Long story. Here is probably not the place for it.) Some friends were coming round to eat it with us, but they weren’t here yet. The husband was cooking the big fish. I had been hovering over him saying annoying things like, oh I wouldn’t cut the lemons like that. Maybe you should put some almonds in too. No don’t bother about doing that with the leeks. It wasn’t long before I was told to shut up and banished from the kitchen.

So I concentrated on finishing my book – Ali Smith’s marvellous The Accidental.

I love Ali Smith. This sounds like the sort of fluff that people churn out to go on the back covers of books but I really do find her writing dizzying and exciting. There’s so much energy to it, so much pizzazz. I was struck by how similar The Accidental is to her most recent book There but for the (which I wrote about here). Both books involve a stranger turning up in a very middle-class set-up and acting as a catalyst for some big changes. Both books also feature, among others, the brilliantly imagined voice of a young girl. In The Accidental we have twelve-year-old Astrid Smart, whose geeky delight in things like the way her hand leaves a mark on her face after she’s slept on it, or how her name is only two vowels away from asteroid is completely enchanting.

So I was very happy to get out of the kitchen and return to the dysfunctional world of The Smarts. But just three and a half minutes later:

‘Oh my god!’ I shrieked, jumping up, striding back to the kitchen, where the husband was busy chopping. ‘Oh my god, oh my god, guess what?’

‘What?’ He used the kind of voice that a grown-up might use to a tiresome child.

‘You know I’m reading this book?’

‘Which book is it again?’

‘You know, the Ali Smith book. The Accidental.’

‘Which one’s that again?’

‘Oh never mind. But guess what?’

‘What?’

‘Well they all watch a film. And the film they watch is The Lady Vanishes!’

No reaction.

‘Listen to this:

It said it was filmed in Islington, Astrid said. Did you see? Did you see? It said at the end, when it said The End, that it was filmed here.

By the canal, Michael said. There was a film studio there.

No way, Astrid said.

No, there was, Michael said. Really. They did costume dramas, things like that. That’s definitely where they made that film.

No way, Astrid said again.’

‘Well there you go,’ said the husband.

I realise that at times of excitement I sound quite similar to Astrid, the twelve-year-old girl. Poor husband.

But I’m not just excited about the fact that Hitchcock’s brilliant film The Lady Vanishes was shot at the Gainsborough Studios, the site of which happens to be about a five-minute walk from my flat. I’m excited because right now, that is exactly what I’m writing about in my novel.

Good coincidence!

I’ve already told you about my novel, but in case you’ve forgotten, it is about a derelict house. Two very different young women make friends and then explore this derelict house, which is right next to The Rosemary Branch pub (where one of them works), which happens to be very close to where the Gainsborough Studios used to be. The interesting thing about the book (let’s hope) is that the house then tells stories of who used to live there through various traces, such as the layers of wallpaper, the coal hole, and – as you might remember from a couple of weeks ago – a forgotten piece of a 1930s toy.

I decided on one of these old train set mini advertisements – just the right size to slip between the floorboards and lie forgotten for the best part of a century, waiting to be discovered by someone looking for something else that had rolled off into a corner.

So the boy who used to have this train set – this very elaborate train set, with all these extra bits – who lived in the house in the 1930s … well, funnily enough, he loved trains. And, for those of you who haven’t seen it, The Lady Vanishes is set almost entirely on a train. It was filmed in 1938 in the Gainsborough Studios, round the corner from the house where this boy lived. According to the (real-life) lady who works in the pub (who’s lived round here forever, who I interviewed as another fun bit of research for the book), people who lived round here used to hang around the studios to try and get work as extras.

Now, if you were a ten-year-old boy who was obsessed with trains, who knew that a film all about a train was being made round the corner and that if he were to play truant and skip school for a day, he might be picked to actually be in the film – recorded forever on celluloid, on show to thousands of people in the cinema, him, there, next to a train… well you’d do it, wouldn’t you?

So you can see him in the film. Near the end, Michael Redgrave says to Margaret Lockwood. ‘Well, this is where we say goodbye.’ There he is, under the sign for platform 7, in his shorts and pulled-up socks, looking curiously at the camera and at this pair of famous actors, just before they hop into a cab. That’s him – the boy in my book.

This scenario had been whirling around my brain for the whole week. How feasible was it? What would the inside of the studio have looked like? What were the names of all the bits of equipment they would have used? Was that scene definitely shot in the studios, or could it have been done at the real Victoria Station? How would they choose the extras? Would he have got away with skipping school? Would he have made any friends while he was waiting for them to shoot that scene? Would they have given him something for lunch, while he waited? So many questions, spiralling around as I perused books in the British Library, listened to Margaret Lockwood on an old Desert Island Discs, watched and re-watched The Lady Vanishes … so you can imagine my surprise when in this completely unrelated book there was a mention of the very thing that had been so on my mind. And not just the film itself, but that it was filmed in that studio, in Islington. (Incidentally, should you be able to shed some light on any of these questions, I’d welcome your knowledge with open arms and a big thank you.)

It’s hard to describe the feeling. Shock, surprise, amazement. A sharp intake of breath. A feeling of wonder. Confusion. It really was completely extraordinary. And, of course, I began to doubt the very nature of coincidence; I couldn’t help but wonder whether this wasn’t merely accidental, but something bigger and more profound.

Thinking about it a little more logically and unexcitably, I shouldn’t be surprised at coming across some connection in The Accidental because it is a book rich in references. There’s a long, very funny description of Love Actually, for instance, passing comments on masses of authors – from Roth to Larkin to Austen to Shakespeare, plenty of songs from the seventies, and much much more. Ali Smith characterises the various members of the Smart family in part by giving them their own cultural references, things that they cling on to as their individual ways of understanding the world, their points of identity. Really it would be odd if I hadn’t found something amongst all of them that was occupying some other part of my brain.

As for The Accidental, aside from its accidental chime with my book … I found it a wonderful, inspiring read. Perhaps it’s not for everyone. Some people, inevitably, will find the stream-of-consciousness style of writing irritating. Some will find the scenario of a stranger just inserting herself into a family’s holiday home too unlikely.

But if you can put these quibbles aside, if you can appreciate the experimentalism and see that Ali Smith is thinking about ideas like representation and the importance of the different points of view (I suppose a bit like Hitchcock), then really it is an astonishing feat. I love the way that the same moment is replayed in each of the characters’ minds utterly differently, each obsessing over a different aspect and missing the rest. It shows quite how hideously dysfunctional the family is, how much it is hiding behind convention and appearance. Smith also captures how terrifying teenagerhood and that awkward moment just before teenagerhood can be, and the cruelty of other children. And she shows how much everyone wants to believe in something, how much people want to be rescued, how much people will invest and imagine in a stranger.

Like There but for the, The Accidental reminded me a little of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, in which all the characters have their own voices and revolve around the empty centre of Percival, who never speaks. Here it’s the same set-up but the empty centre – the character whose head we scarcely enter is Amber, or Alhambra. I suppose The Accidental shows just how much we are capable of projecting onto emptiness.

So I really shouldn’t project too much meaning and significance onto this empty accidental coincidence of The Lady Vanishes. And yet, it’s so hard to resist feeling like it’s a sign from the universe that I am on the right track.

Hurrah!

Toys

May 14, 2012

This week was a very exciting one – my first ‘By the Book’ column was in the Spectator. Those of you who have been reading EmilyBooks for a little while might have seen some of my pieces for the Spectator’s Book blog, but this was the first time I was in the actual mag, in the physical printed thing. For the inaugural ‘By the Book’, I thought that David Cameron and George Osborne – who were accused of being too posh to know the price of a pint of milk – should take a leaf out of Brideshead Revisited and be a little more like Sebastian Flyte. You can read it here. The best bit is my little bookish picture!

Amidst the tremendous excitement of seeing my name in print – repeatedly showing smiling friends, proud family members and even bewildered newsagents my column – this week I have been rather preoccupied with toys. In my column I wondered what David Cameron and George Osborne would call their teddy bears, if they were to follow the example of Sebastian, with his dearly-loved Aloysius. (Perhaps Ted Heath?) The thought crossed my mind again when wandering through the magical Pollock’s Toy Museum this weekend and seeing such lovely creatures as this:

According to his label, he has a military bearing and a squeaker in his body. There was even a little teddy bears’ picnic assembled in another cabinet. (I suspect that David Cameron’s bear wouldn’t be allowed any milk with his tea.) But my trip to Pollock’s Toy Museum wasn’t just to hunt out possible parliamentary teddies, it was to seek inspiration for my novel.

Some of you might remember that I’m writing a novel about a derelict house. Yes, I’m still writing it. But it is going well – I’m edging towards 60,000 words of the first draft, which means I’m substantially nearer the end than the beginning. The novel is about a young woman called Anna, who moves into a canal boat with a strange older man called Roger (first Jolly Roger, then Dodgy Roger), makes friends with a barmaid called Eliza and then the two girls explore a nearby derelict house. So far so Swallows and Amazons I hear you think… but here’s the twist. We learn about who’s lived in the house over the past hundred and fifty years, through remaining traces such as layers of wallpaper, the coal hole, a mysterious piece of wood with Hebrew writing on it, even the very bricks in the walls. And all these historical chapters are based on fact.

Which means that sometimes I have to do rather a lot of research, and some other times I get to go on jaunts to rather idiosyncratic museums. Anna and Eliza are going to find a little broken bit of a boy’s toy from the 1930s. Luckily Pollock’s Toy Museum had several contenders. I thought perhaps a wheel from this rather smart car:

Or else there were masses of train sets to choose from. I suppose they could find a train wheel, but I am particularly fond of these little mini advertisements, which were used to decorate train sets:

And I loved this destination board too:

Tough choice. Perhaps the train paraphernalia is a little more original, but then it would be so easy for a wheel to come off a car, and spin off into the corner, where it could lie covered in dust for a very long time indeed. Although, I suppose those little advertisements or place names are very slim pieces of tin. Slim enough to slip between the cracks in the floorboards, for instance. Hummm… I shall have to get my imagination whirring into action.

Pollock’s Toy Museum is utterly enchanting. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Every inch is packed with so many things. The Victorian science experiments sets were far more exciting than the ones we get today – they included little jars of mercury and the like. There are early building blocks from brands like Meccano, old Penny Dreadfuls, beautiful dolls houses filled with mini-everything, and – best of all – E.M. Forster’s toy soldiers, donated to the museum by King’s College Cambridge. Quite why Forster had his childhood toys with him up at Cambridge is psychologically intriguing to say the least.

My very favourite toys, when I was little, were my cuddly animals. I had a selection, ranging from Charlie the caterpillar (who had different coloured socks on each foot), to Jeremy Fisher and, most favourite, were Chip and Dale the chipmunks, with their respective black and red noses.

When I was about five years old, I had a rather traumatic revelation about my cuddly toys. We went on a holiday to Disneyworld, where my parents bought me an Eeyore soft toy. I really loved that Eeyore. I was going through an acute Winnie the Pooh phase, and felt particularly affectionate towards the poor melancholy donkey. He was instantly drafted into the upper echelons of my soft toy society, and Chip and Dale were made to move up to make room for him at bedtime. So far so good. Until we left Disneyworld and went on to some other bit of Florida. Once we got to the new hotel, we made a terrible discovery. Eeyore had been forgotten. I’d like to say that I handled it with sophisticated and mature aplomb, but, of course, I was a nightmare. The previous hotel was telephoned. Had housekeeping found it in the room? Could they perhaps find out and then post it to us? But all this to no avail. Eeyore had completely disappeared.

I think perhaps I might have got over this loss. I did, after all, still have Chip and Dale, who were very trusty companions. And perhaps, I reasoned, Eeyore had just wandered off to find another home. Perhaps he didn’t like all the company – he definitely keeps himself to himself in the books. But then the thunderbolt came:

‘Oh well, we’ll just buy another one,’ said Mum.

I didn’t understand. There wasn’t another one. Eeyore had gone away. That was Eeyore, there couldn’t possibly be another Eeyore.

‘Don’t be daft,’ I was told. ‘There are plenty more Eeyores. We’ll just go to a shop and buy another one. It will be exactly the same.’

It was a horrid moment. Because if there were millions of Eeyores, all exactly the same, then there were also millions of Chips, Dales and Charlies too. These were my friends – and suddenly they were made to seem just mass-produced things, not real at all.

Looking back on it now, it reminds me of Margery Williams’ classic children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit, which is about a boy’s toy rabbit who is desperate to become real. It’s a very sweet story, and there is a very sad bit in it too. There’s also that famous quotation, often pulled out for weddings and the like, about becoming real. I won’t quote too much here as it’s too naf, but the gist is, you become real when you’re really loved. It can hurt, and it takes a long time:

That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept … Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.

Bit schmaltzy, but I think it can just about be forgiven in a children’s book.

The point is that toys are only toys to adults – to children, more often than not, they’re real. And wandering round Pollock’s Toy Museum, bearing this in mind, is completely astonishing. It is filled with all these things that so many children have loved so much. One can peer around inside other people’s imaginations, glimpsing all those funny scenarios and whole worlds that have sprung up around these little props.

I suppose really that’s what writing the novel is all about – recreating some of these lost worlds from a few little clues. At least for one of these 1930s toys, one little lost world might be resuscitated.

 

Walking To the River

April 4, 2012

One of my most favourite things is going for a walk. I am at my happiest when strolling along – definitely not too fast or strenuously – looking at beautiful scenery, be it on Hampstead Heath, Hampshire, or Hackney Wick.

Aside from the views, one of the things I love most about walking is talking. I wrote about Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas here, in which he wrote about Thomas and Frost’s habit of ‘talk-walking’. They’d go off into the fields and walk for hours, talking all the while, usually of poetry and other lofty things.

No doubt my own talk-walks are a little less high-brow than Edward Thomas’s. But I love the way that once one’s limbs are loosened, one’s tongue is loosened too. All sorts of things that one might normally struggle to talk about come bubbling up like water from a spring – and one babbles away quite easily.

Of course, if there’s no one for company on a walk, then babbling away to oneself looks at best eccentric. Virginia Woolf did it, striding through the Sussex countryside, stomping out the plots of novels, talking to herself all the way. I might hum to myself a little, but usually, if alone, the talking goes on in my head, my thoughts chattering away silently to themselves.

When I feel a bit stuck with my writing – when I get a horrid feeling like there’s a blockage in a key synoptic pathway in my brain – a walk usually sorts it out. Although, when I walk, my thoughts refuse to follow a straight trajectory and dart all over the place making nothing at all coherent, just a very satisfying scribble. It’s when I get home afterwards and sit down to write, that I find the scribble’s unlocked the blockage and I’ve leapt ahead. Phew.

I feel sure there must be plenty of women who walk and write. There’s Virginia Woolf for a start, and there’s also Olivia Laing, whose To the River is just out as an attractive paperback. But, with these exceptions, I really can’t think of any other women who write about walking.

It’s so peculiar! If you think of the big names in English nature-writing (aka walk-writing), they’re all men like Edward Thomas, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin. Travel further afield and there’s Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman Lewis and Laurie Lee. Where have all the women gone?

Well perhaps they just walked and talked or walked and thought, without writing it down afterwards. Perhaps we women don’t share the stereotypically ‘male’ impulse to spot and catalogue things obsessively, or perhaps we simply don’t have enough confidence in our walks to commit them to paper. Or perhaps I am just yet to find these elusive women walk-writers. I’d be grateful for any pointers, those of you who know something I don’t.

Well, I’m very pleased that Olivia Laing wrote about her walk along the River Ouse. She walks alone, letting her mind meander along all sorts of fascinating watery diversions. Among other things, we get a folklore tale of faeries, a good bit about the Styx, the tragic story behind The Wind in the Willows and there is the frequent tug of Virginia Woolf, who, of course, drowned herself in the Ouse.

I particularly like the way Olivia Laing doesn’t always pretend to be in a bucolic dream in the middle of nowhere. We are jolted back to the twenty-first century by having to cross an A-road, gobbling a curry for supper, or overhearing a filthy conversation in a pub car park. This is definitely the English countryside of today, which makes the moments of wildness all the more special. Our countryside is now cris-crossed by noisy roads, and our rivers, often as not, end in container ports, changed from meandering streams into ‘an industrial river, dark as oil, its surface opaque and unrevealing’.

But the rivers are still there and one can still find beauty in their surroundings, even if that beauty can be jagged and rather unexpected. Laing gives us both ‘the elder foaming with flowers the colour of Jersey cream’ and the sugared fennel seeds in the Indian restaurant, leaving ‘the ghost of aniseed … on the tip of my tongue like a word I knew but could not speak’.

It’s an intensely lyrical book, beautifully written about beautiful places. It’s a book that above all has made me want to put my shoes on and stride out towards a river. And I would never neglect to bring with an enormous and delicious picnic a la Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

Thanks Olivia for the reminder. Yum.

The Beginning of Spring

March 13, 2012

The other day I got chatting to a young lady who used to work as a journalist for a national newspaper. She revealed that online journalism is full of tricks, such as trying to get the words ‘google’, ‘sex’ and ‘tits’ into each story, which apparently makes the article easier to find with a search engine. She also said that they were told not to write anything too long, encouraged to use bullet points and the more pictures the better.

I came away feeling that EmilyBooks is doomed to failure. I don’t think that I’ve ever used ‘google’, ‘sex’ or ‘tits’ in any of my posts. Until now that is. But, in my defence, people looking for any of those three things are unlikely to find what they’re looking for here. Perhaps I’m just writing the wrong kind of blog. Perhaps this should be a blog about googling for sex and tits.

Leaving aside the issue of the three magic words, I’m sure I don’t use enough bullet points or pictures, or write short enough articles. (I mean I’ve not yet said anything really, and I’m already 200 words in.)

Help!

After a couple of days fretting about this, I have resolved not to worry. But I am going to try to use more pictures. I suspect these will mostly be taken (badly) with my mobile phone, whose camera I have only used once before when excitedly taking a photo of the new Routemaster.

Ta da!

Do feel free to tell me if you think these new pictures add anything to EmilyBooks or if I should ignore all this rubbish and go back to my happy luddite ways.

Back to books anyway. I recently wrote a piece for the Spectator about books in spring. It was a bit of an eccentric piece, essentially written to point out that there are three very good books with the word ‘hare’ in the title, which is too brilliantly Marchlike to miss. Well I finished the article having decided to read something spring-y. Which is how I ended up with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.

What a wonderful book! I really do think the lady is a genius. I read Offshore a couple of years ago and have been longing to read something else by her ever since. What she does with great dexterity in both books is create a slightly odd situation, peopled with terribly eccentric but completely believable characters. Each book trundles along slightly quirkily until shortly before the end when something REALLY weird happens.

The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913. I enviously noted how well Fitzgerald has done her research, dropping in casual references to things like samovar sizes or routes taken by taxi sledges. It’s not brazenly in-your-face like historical research can be (such as in Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White), rather it is quietly assured, the odd detail filled in perfectly, while the rest is left sketchy enough for the reader’s imagination to have some freedom.

I say that I noted it enviously because I’m currently writing a chapter in my own novel about Picasso, Braque and Kahnweiler in Paris in 1908 and it’s horribly difficult to get right. A couple of months ago I knew very little about Picasso or Braque, had never even heard of Kahnweiler, and didn’t know much about Paris or 1908 either. I’ve been spending many an hour in the British Library trying to learn useful things. The problem is it’s a chicken and egg situation. You need to know something in order to start writing, but as soon as you start writing you realise you don’t know the right thing and so have to go back and research something else. The image that most comes to mind is that of shambling through a three-legged race, the writing and research leaning on each other and helping each other along, but not at all smoothly, often, in fact, tripping each other up.

So well done Penelope. You have succeeded perfectly where many lesser beings fail.

One historical and geographical detail that I particularly loved is the opening of the windows. All through the winter, the windows in Moscow were sealed closed and opening them signifies the beginning of spring:

All morning the yardman had been removing the putty from the inner glass, piece by piece, flake by flake. Blashl [the dog], frantic at his long disappearance, howled at intervals, but the yardman worked slowly. When all the putty was off, without a scratch from the chisel, he called, lord of the moment, for the scrapings to be brushed away. The space between the outer and inner windows was black with dead flies. They, too, must be removed, and the sills washed down with soft soap. Then with a shout from the triumphant shoecleaning boy at the top of the house to Ben, still in the hall, the outer windows, some terribly stuck, were shaken and rattled till they opened wide. Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.

Have I just been with an architect for too long, or is this really fascinating? As far as I can understand from this (it’s no point googling ‘opening windows Moscow’ as you just get things about computer programs or articles with obvious metaphorical titles (by the way, do you see what trick I did there??!!)), in Moscow, an extra layer of glass was put in each window for the winter months, which was properly sealed with putty to make very effective double glazing. But see how Fitgerald describes it so minutely, with such thought going into how one would open a window after months of it being sealed. It is a painstaking process. Someone else is called to brush away the scrapings. Dead flies have got in there. The outer windows have become stiff and stuck. And then, finally, she gives us the beautiful climax of the sounds of Moscow blown in on the fresh spring wind. She’s a genius.

I wish we had the same window-opening ritual today in London. How amazing to have been sealed up and cocooned all winter, and then, quite suddenly, to feel connected to the outside. (Incidentally, this all fits in rather nicely with what I was saying about windows in my last post about Ravilious.)

But we have other signs of spring. Like this beautiful tree covered in blossom, which I saw in Hyde Park this weekend!

The funny thing is, when I saw it, I instantly thought of the cover of The Beginning of Spring, with its snow-covered trees. Snow and blossom can give such similar impressions, it is as though the tree shakes off the snow and instantly replaces it with the blossom. Either way, it is covered in white and looks incredibly pretty. Be it in Moscow or in London, I do love the beginning of spring.