Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

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.

A Literary A-Z

February 20, 2012

I can’t believe it’s been such a long time since the most recent instalment of my Literary A-Z. For those of you who’ve been waiting with baited breath since the battle of Rushdie vs Richardson, I can only apologise.

S

Kicking off with S seems a little unfair because S has to be Shakespeare. No room for manoeuvre there. If I had to pick my favourite Shakespeare, I’d choose King Lear. (I wrote about the Domar’s recent production here.)

But, for the sake of making it slightly more interesting, some other S authors that I’ve loved are Ali Smith, J.D. Salinger and – of course – Dodie Smith. My old boss used to publish Salinger’s books and told me that he was very tricky with his covers, never letting a picture on the front, insisting that the design be purely typographical. At school I thought Salinger’s collection of short stories, For Esme with Love and Squalor, was the best book ever. I read it obsessively, many times over. It was a love made defiant when told by my English teacher that it wasn’t substantial enough to be the subject of an essay. Pah, I thought, you just don’t understand. It was all deeply teenagerish and a little silly.

Speaking of silly teenagers, last night I happened to watch the DVD of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which many of you know is one of my all-time-favourite books. It was a rare instance of being almost enjoyable on film as on the page, thanks mostly to Romola Garai and Bill Nighy. The funny thing was that the film looked oddly like a Brora photoshoot, which, given they’re supposed to be an impoverished family and Brora cardigans cost upwards of £200 a pop, does seem peculiar. Particularly fun bits were the scenes shot in the RIBA building, which was dressed up as a thirties department store. Does anyone else love playing the London place-spotting game when watching anything on screen? Annoyingly the husband tends to get it about five seconds before me each time!

A brilliant S-link is that not far into the film of I Capture the Castle, everyone’s trying to get the Americans’ car out of the mud when James Mortmain (aka Bill Nighy) curses the storm’s ‘cataracts and hurricanoes’. Looking back through the book I can’t find these exact words; instead, Dodie Smith just writes that ‘he was freely damning the weather’. Well Bill Nighy evidently freely damned the weather in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear. One great S is brought into another great S. Splendid!

T

T is a little more tricky. Edward Thomas? Colm Toibin? Elizabeth Taylor? I’m going to confess that I’ve never got on particularly well with Tolstoy. I’ve begun Anna Karenina several times, and never got much past the ice skating episode. Perhaps I was just too young. (But I worry that I’ll never love the Russians because I always get so muddled with all the long names!) Some Tolstoy that I did enjoy was The Kreutzer Sonata, which Penguin published as a pretty little Great Loves edition.

I think I must go for Edward Thomas. However much I loved The Blackwater Lightship and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, ‘Adlestrop’ wins hands down every time. Even if he was quite horrid to his wife.

U

An impossible letter because I haven’t read anything by John Updike, who seems to be more-or-less the only fiction writer beginning with U.

Then again, I haven’t read any non-fiction by Jenny Uglow, but I suspect I’d enjoy her much more than Updike. I feel particularly fond of Jenny Uglow, in spite of the fact that I’ve not yet read any of her well-acclaimed biographies, or her book about English gardens. This is because as well as being such a successful writer, she is also a very well-respected editor. Editorial Director at Chatto & Windus no less.

When I was shuffling around at the bottom of the publishing food chain, trying to write a novel in the mornings before arriving at the sterile office, the thought that there were very successful publishers who also managed also to have writing careers was tremendously inspiring. It made me think that I might not have to choose between writing books and making them, that I could somehow do both. How I longed to bump into her, strike up a conversation and be given a cup of tea and taken under her wing! Needless to say I never had the courage even to say hello, and, when it became clear that one must be far more senior and important than me to go part-time in publishing and that I couldn’t go on forever doing all my writing very early in the morning and then being brain-dead all afternoon, I took a different path from Uglow and side-stepped out of publishing. But well done her, as there must have been a time when she stuck to her guns and said, no I’m not leaving, I’m going to make this work and do two things very well indeed. U goes to Jenny Uglow.

What we talk about when we talk about architecture

July 11, 2011

Last week I spent rather a lot of time in the company of architects. There was once a time when I used to panic in these situations and my conversation would diminish to the single line of, ‘Have you read The Fountainhead?’

The Fountainhead is a huge, trashy, very addictive novel. Its main character, Howard Roark, is a modernist architect who has arrived on the scene before his time. His visions of clean lines and functional architecture are scorned by critics, who prefer the mediocre, unoriginal, overly ornate traditional architecture practised by Roark’s friend Peter Keating. When a rebellious lady – Dominique – turns up on the scene, the plot thickens and becomes very engrossing.

I suppose what slightly undermines the novel is that it is all an extended metaphor for Rand’s philosophical beliefs of rational egoism, capitalism and objectivism. She uses the novel to say, essentially: the individual is important, sod the collective masses. I distinctly remember a long boring section towards the end where she goes off on an undisguised rant about it.

But, nonetheless, it’s a fun novel, Roark is a superb hero – he even spends time working in a quarry! – and it does provide something to talk about when one meets an architect. There are few architects who haven’t read it.

Now, after several years of accompanying the fiancé (who has just finished studying architecture) to all sorts of architecty things, I can normally manage some real architectural conversation. So spending so much time around architects last week was really fun. I didn’t panic once. Now I can talk a bit about buildings and cities, and drop in a few names of architects who I like, or who I don’t. (On the latter, I even wrote a post – here – about Daniel Libeskind.)

But, in spite of this, I occasionally find myself bringing up the old Fountainhead line. Ironically, this is because architects are less Randian and self-centred than The Fountainhead would lead one to believe, so they tend to take an interest in what I do. And so the subject of books arises. And, in order to make this common ground, it’s quite helpful to have an architectural book or two up one’s sleeve.

The next step up in architectural-literary conversation, I discovered, is to read a real architecture book – a book written by an architect, about ideas in architecture that are a bit more subtle than modernism versus traditionalism.

So, on an architect’s recommendation, I read Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison. This is one of those books that is rammed full of very intelligent, perfectly nuanced, original ideas.

I like these books but I find they require so much concentration and brain power that I can only manage about two-and-a-half pages at a time. I also continually suffer from the feeling that I’m not fully understanding them.

My tactic for these books is to concentrate particularly hard on the bits that discuss something – as in a building, painting or book – with which I’m familiar, and not to worry too much about the passages that discuss things that I haven’t seen or read. Especially if there aren’t any pictures.

So I found myself very much enjoying Harbison’s discussion of the Boboli gardens, which is one of my favourite places in Florence – and indeed was where we sought respite last summer, when the fiancé got sunstroke. This bit’s particularly good:

If we imagine the forms of a formal garden like the Boboli … in masonry instead of vegetation we get an unexpectedly bizarre construction which shows that people let themselves be confined by plants in ways they would endure uneasily indoors. In the Boboli there is proportionately so much corridor for the number or rooms one might think we came outside for the experience of confinement, which can be enjoyed at greater length there … At times it seems that gardens exist to give a controlled experience of being lost or trapped and the distance seems slight from the maze at Hampton Court to the horrid gardens of fairy tales with poison plants, poison fountains, traps, and cages.

Whenever I’ve been in the Boboli gardens I’ve spent ages wandering around – there never seems to be a good spot to sit down and I’ve always felt that I’ve got to keep going to the next bit, not unlike being in a maze. There is something undoubtedly overbearing about all those hedges and the surprising lack of open space. And there is definitely a resemblance to a fairy-tale, a feeling of having to get past all the obstacles to find one’s way out. I like the way Harbison writes in simple yet precise language, how he uses the word ‘horrid’ and gives the word its sense of ‘horror’ as well as the more common sense of ‘nasty’.

I also like Harbison’s description of what it feels like to wander among the Roman Forum and among ruins in general:

The vegetation softens and makes agreeable huge and sterile buildings yet the spectator longs for what is not there, tries to re-erect fallen pillars, to hold a decayed roof in place, to decorate and furnish before it all collapses into the present.

It seems particularly pertinent for me as I’m writing a novel about a derelict house and the stories which it has to tell. The entire book, I suppose, is an attempt, if not to re-erect fallen pillars, then definitely to ‘hold a decayed roof in place, to decorate and furnish’ it, to imagine what the ruin was like in the past.

But talking to architects about the novel I’m writing can have some unexpected results. Architects tend to like the fact that it’s about a building. Perhaps that lulls me into a false sense of security.

At a dinner thing the other day, sitting next to an architect, I tried to explain what I meant by saying the house in my book has stories to tell. I used the example of coal holes – holes in the pavement, covered by ornate metal discs, that go directly down into coal cellars. Although they’re now redundant, when the coal man used to come round with his deliveries, the coal holes meant he could deliver the coal straight into the cellar without coming through the house and spreading coal dust everywhere. The house in my novel has a coal hole. The story connected to it is when it was used to drop off bottles of paraffin to be used in a nearby arson attack.

The architect listened to all this. Then he revealed that he knew quite a bit about coal holes. It transpired that, when studying, he’d looked at coal holes as a now-defunct system which could be reimagined. He had proposed that coal holes could now be used as a way of delivering internet shopping. Rather than having to be at home to take the Ocado delivery, it could be safely deposited directly into the cellar. They would certainly be a good place to deliver all those annoying packages that are too thick for the letterbox and end up waiting for collection at the post office.

I told him that I thought his delivery idea was a good one.

‘Well now,’ he said, ‘you must include it in your book.’

I laughed. ‘I would, but you see the book’s all about histories and things that have happened in the past.’

‘About coal?’

‘Well no, not really.’

‘Well why can’t you have a future chapter?’

‘Um…’

‘Like science fiction.’

During this conversation, my novel was unravelling itself in my head, spinning out of its tightly-plotted existence into a weird book that’s a bit like that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer finds his toaster has turned into a time machine, goes back in time, accidentally does something he shouldn’t, and then returns home to find that everyone has weirdly long tongues or that its raining doughnuts … or that people are delivering shopping into his coal hole.

‘It’s not really a science fiction book.’

‘But this is perfect for your chapter about coal holes.’

And that was the point when I realised that maybe the golden rule of architectural-literary conversations was only to talk about books that have already been written. Otherwise, there’s the danger that architects – who think about things like narrative in very different ways to us bookish sorts – will try to build the book themselves.

The perils of sending a message

March 14, 2011

We live in an age in which everyone is sending messages to everyone else all the time. Telephone calls and text messages; Facebook and Twitter; emails and instant messages … there have never been so many different ways to communicate.

Before all this technology, the only alternative to saying something face-to-face was to write a letter. Penn a note, seal it up and then dispatch it with a messenger … maybe it only sounds really fun because it’s so old-fashioned. But, whethere it’s fun or not, it has definitely served as an excellent literary device.

Letters can hold absolutely vital information so, in novels, a great deal rests on keeping them out of the wrong hands and delivering them safely. Letter-related plots tend to go along the lines of: X writes a terribly important letter to Y, but Y doesn’t get it in time. Or Z sees Y reading it and that ruins everything. Or Z reads it instead of Y …

‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.’

It’s such a marvellous opening to Howards End. And there are several letters in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – the one which reveals to Henchard the secret of Elizabeth-Jane’s birth, and the incriminating stash of love letters between him and Lucetta. Of course, Bleak House sees Dickens using a stash of love letters too. Even Ian McEwan uses a, now infamous, letter at the start of Atonement.

Too many novels make use of letters for me to list them all here. But let’s not forget plays and, let’s certainly not forget Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet must make the most tragic use of this plot device. When Friar Laurence tells Juliet of his plan, for her to take a ‘distilling liquor’ that will make her assume a ‘borrowed likeness of shrunk death’, vital to its success is that ‘Shall Romeo by my letters know our drift’.

And Romeo expects these letters, asking his man Balthasar, ‘Hast thou no letters to me from the friar?’ But the messenger fails to deliver the letter to Romeo and Friar Lawrence laments:

‘The letter was not nice, but full of charge,

Of dear import, and the neglecting it

May do much danger.’

And we all know how it ends up. All because the message didn’t get to Romeo.

Nowadays, there are still plenty of opportunities for a message intended for someone to be read by someone else. How many of us have accidentally sent a text about someone to that person instead of to the friend to whom they meant to send it?!

But at least messages don’t go astray as they used. There’s no messenger running around delivering very important sealed letters and so there’s no opportunity for the messenger to get waylaid. Instead, someone makes a phonecall, or sends an email, or a text message. The message is instantly delivered. Yes, ok, there’s a very slim chance that the message might get lost somehow. The email could go into the Junk Mail folder, or the phone number’s wrong. But I don’t think it would really be believed in a novel.

But now we have so many different ways of communicating with each other, how do we pick which one to use? Why a facebook message rather than an email? Why a text message over an instant message?

If, for instance, you’ve had dinner at a friend’s house, how do you thank them the next day? Does a text message seem a bit flippant? Is a postcard a bit OTT? A phonecall would definitely be weird. Would an email be too formal? And, of course, what seems like the right choice for you, might well not seem right to them.

And, now we’re so used to instantaneous communication, when should the thank you be sent? A text the next morning? What if you forget until teatime? And if you send a postcard, that means there’s going to be a whole day’s wait – will the host spend that day thinking that you’re rude? Once, on the way home from a dinner, the host sent me a thank you text. Had I already left it too long?

Dating brings a whole new dimension to this quandary. In Jane Austen novels, Mr Darcy (or the equivalent) always turns up at the young lady’s house. Or he might send a letter confessing his love. When I was younger, if a boy liked you, he’d get your number and then phone you up to ask you out. This was pre-mobile phones, so the chances were, he’d speak to one of your parents, or big brothers, first. It must have been terrifying. Now, it comes down to no more than a text message. ‘Do U Want2C a film on Fri night? x’ (Although I think anyone who asked me out in text-speak got an automatic rejection.)

It seems that the age of the phone call has been superseded by the age of the text message and email. It’s odd, really, that we’ve moved away from this form of spoken communication back to written.

I wonder why we prefer expressing ourselves in writing. As anyone who’s ever sent a text message to someone they fancy knows, a hell of a lot of time can go into its composition … and into analysing any message from a potential date. Should I write ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’ or ‘Hello’, or none of them? Should I ask a question so they have to reply? What does he mean by two kisses at the end?

I’m slightly ashamed to admit to having spent an entire evening helping a friend compose a text message, only to then spend the whole following day waiting with her for a response.

And that’s another thing key to written communication instead of spoken. One has to wait for a response. The ‘conversation’ can be drawn out over a whole week. Especially when one takes into account the rules of playing hard to get, not replying within a day, teasing everything out in a noncommittal way. It would be so much easier to phone someone up and get it all sorted out then in a five minute call. So much easier, but so much less ambiguous … and so much less fun too.

Unless, that is, the feeling isn’t mutual. How long can one wait for a response to a text message or an email before accepting the rejection? Most of us tend to invent excuses rather than take it as a no. I don’t think it sent properly. I think he said he was on holiday this week. Maybe his phone got stolen. It must have gone into his junk mail.

Perhaps it is our literary heritage of written communication that comes into play here. We are very used to reading novels and plays about letters going astray, messages being intercepted, something preventing the sound completion of an act of communication. Rather than accepting the fact that we’ve been ignored or rejected, it’s much kinder to pretend that our message has gone astray. Even if the chances of that actually happening – when it’s a text message rather than a letter – are slim to none.

But, because we now send each other messages all the time, via so many different media, we are all much worse at responding to them. If someone gets one message a day, chances are, they’ll reply. If they get a hundred, chances are, they won’t. Yes your message was delivered, yes it was probably read, and yes it was ignored, or overlooked, because it wasn’t quite important enough.

Of course, if this is in the context of dating, then forget it – they’re not interested. But perhaps we need to be a bit more lenient to friends, colleagues and others who don’t reply when they ought. I’m sure we’re guilty of the same thing ourselves.

Or, failing that, maybe the answer is to go back to writing letters. At least for the important things in life. That way, if one doesn’t get a response, one can tell oneself that it really could have got lost in the post.

Literary car mechanics

October 18, 2010

This morning I took my car in for an MOT and service. My trusty little red Polo has been quite creaky for the past couple of months, so it’s definitely due for a check-up.

I tell the mechanic what’s wrong with the car and we go for a spin around the block. As we ascend a speed bump, he opens the door so that he can hear exactly where the creak is coming from.

Back at the garage, he drives the car on to the ramp, and it gets lifted up by a hefty metal contraption. First the body is pulled upwards, creating new space above the wheels, and then they start going up too, until the whole thing is high up in the air, wheels level with our shoulders. Well, with my shoulders – the mechanic is a bit taller than me.

He starts spinning the wheels, and listening to them whirr. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘a bearing’s gone in that back wheel.’ He explains that it rumbles, whereas the other ones are quiet. And, sure enough, putting my ear close to the wheel, I can hear a low rumbling, as though it might be around noon and the wheel is beginning to think about lunch.

Then we approach the front right wheel – from whence the creakiness has been coming. He shines a light up to the area between the wheel and the main body of the car. I’ve never thought about this part of the car before. Instead of shiny red paint, always cheerful and bright (even if a little grubby), here is dark rotting grey decay. Dust has accumulated in such vast amounts that it has clumped together into thick wispy charcoal tendrils, blackening anything that touches it.

‘You see here,’ he says, pointing to a pale spring that coils upwards, through the dirty dusty greyness, from the top of the wheel into the car’s body. ‘Your coil’s broken. You need a new one.’ He explains that one bit of the coil should be sitting on top of something else, but my something else has vanished and so that bit of coil is hanging impotently loose. ‘You might have noticed something come flying off your car,’ he suggests.

Needless to say, I haven’t.

The tour of the car continues. He shines the light inside the wheel, pointing out the 90%-worn-down brake pads which will need replacing. I am surprised by how similar they look to the little pads on my bike wheels. I often have nightmares about pressing down on the brakes while driving and the car rolling unstoppably forwards. Seeing these miniscule brake pads does nothing to cure my neurosis.

Then the metal contraption is started up again, and the car glides up higher and higher, until it’s above our heads. I get shown around its underbelly of parts fitted together in the most mechanical of jigsaws. The exhaust pipe is chunkier than I’d imagined, wide, burnished, and thoroughly built-in to the car, not hanging loose as I’d naively assumed. I am drawn towards a patch near the front of the car, where the dark greyness has a shiny glisten to it. It looks like liquid gold has spilled out, coating the drabness with a slippery sheen.

‘You’ve got an oil leak too,’ he says, noticing this shiny liquid. ‘I’ll have to have a good look to see where that’s coming from, could be way up there.’ He points upwards, and the jigsaw suddenly becomes all the more complicated as I realise it is like a rubix cube, 3D, and this is no more than a single edge.

Our tour complete, the car is lowered back down to ground level. It suddenly looks very red indeed, blushing from this intimate examination.

‘Right,’ says the mechanic, ‘I’ll need to get a bearing and a new spring. And I’ll need to change your brake pads, and look into that oil leak …’

‘Oh yes,’ I say, ‘and the little flap over the petrol thing doesn’t close properly either.’ He has a look and sees that the catch for the little flap is, indeed, buggered.

‘And that too,’ he agrees. ‘And then there’s the rest of the service and the MOT.’ He pauses for a moment and I wonder if I’ll get my car back in time for Christmas. ‘Should be done this evening, if I can get the parts today. I’ll give you a call later on.’

And I trundle off, away from the garage fit snugly under the railway arch, feeing my tummy begin to rumble like the bearing-less wheel and think perhaps I should get some breakfast.

But on the walk home, something is nagging at me. I go over the car-examination in my head, the astonishing experience of seeing its insides, its underneath, its hidden parts, being told that a missing bearing makes a rumble, a damaged coil makes the creaks …

It’s like editing, I realise, as soon as I start eating my pain au chocolat. It’s just like editing.

When you write something, anything, chances are you’ll write it all out, fiddle around with it a bit, and then leave it for a little while before coming back to read through it and work on it again, redrafting, editing.

And when you read it through you think along the lines of, ‘Ah, that’s a little clunky … that bit creaks a bit … that character always feels a bit slow, a bit clumsy.’ And then you think, ‘Now why is that bit clunky?’ You analyse it, you hold it up to the light and take the sentence to pieces. Often you pull out a word and decide that it’s not the right one – perhaps it’s too worn out, tired, overused – and you replace it.

Sometimes something that can seem beautiful, golden, glistening can actually be too much – it’s leaked out of place, seeped out and become potentially dangerous to the rest of the narrative.

Of course, it often isn’t ready by the evening. It can be hard to find where exactly the leak needs to be plugged. And getting the new parts in can be harder than expected – it can be tricky to find the right word to make everything read smoothly, creak-free. And sometimes, try and try as you might, you just can’t make it work.

The thing is, to go back to my car, it isn’t the car manufacturer who fixes it, it’s a mechanic. Sometimes, the writer just can’t fix a piece of writing. They need a car mechanic. Or, indeed an editor.

William Golding had Faber’s Charles Monteith, who picked Lord of the Flies, or ‘The Stranger That Lies Within’ as it was then titled, from the slush pile. He edited it rather fiercely, substantially changing it, losing whole chapters (not just the title) so that it enjoyed commercial success.

And Raymond Carver had Knopf’s Gordon Lish, who pretty much created Carver’s famous pared-down style. Just out in paperback is Beginners, the original, unedited version of Carver’s collection of stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Putting the two books side-by-side is a telling experience. Lish cut most of Carver’s stories by at least 50%. He rejigged plots, changed endings and names, and made everything more understated, more blue-collar. Indeed, as Blake Morrison concludes in his Guardian review of Beginners:

The true Carver, we now see, is gentler, fleshier, less brutal than Lish’s Carver. The true Carver accommodates digressions and back-stories. The true Carver isn’t Carveresque.

Several people have been outraged by the publication of Beginners. It is not uncommon to hear words to the effect of, ‘How dare they publish an earlier draft of Carver’s masterpiece?’ in the bookshop. Jonathan Franzen, one imagines, must still be seething.

But I like the fact that it shows quite how forceful, quite how instrumental an editor can be. I like the fact that now we can really see that it was Lish who made Carver Carveresque. That Carver needed someone else to make him him, to make his stories glide so smoothly, so perfectly.

Perhaps we are supposed to read Beginners and think that Carver was a genius and Lish was no more than an interfering rat. But I think one should see it as a celebration of editors. They really are the car mechanics of twentieth-century literature.

Life is like …

August 13, 2010

… a box of chocolates.

I found myself saying that particularly memorable line at a dinner party the other day, when we were all deliberating which yummy choccy to pick from a rather tempting plate.

The following morning, rather hungover, the fiancé and I went for a fry up. We chatted about the night before. ‘I was ok, wasn’t I?’ I asked, ‘Not too embarrassing?’  (I always need to check. Sometimes, when overexcited in public, apparently I can say really silly things.)

‘Yeah, you were fine. Not nearly as bad as when you said that thing about The Crystal Maze in Italy.’

In Italy, staying with friends a month or so ago, we’d all got on to the subject of old television shows from our childhood. I said that I always used to think that when I grew up, life would be like The Crystal Maze. Everyone gave me a look. Nobody got it, no matter how hard I tried to explain. Someone charitably changed the subject and then that was that.

Life is like … well, there are hundreds of quotes, although perhaps none so memorable as that one from Forest Gump. Most of the ones littered around the internet are by people I’ve never heard of. But I do like this one from Einstein:

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.

And, I shall reassert my childhood dream:

Life is like The Crystal Maze. You only have a certain amount of time to meet the challenges it throws at you.

I suppose this belief harks back to my post about quests and children’s books (here). When I was young, I believed that I’d grow up into a life filed with adventures. This was almost entirely because of what I read in books.

In fact, needing a break from adult books, a couple of days ago I read Patrick Ness’s fantastic book The Knife of Never Letting Go, which won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize a couple of years ago.

Todd, the main character, is chased out of ‘Prentistown’ and finds himself on a terrifying adventure through New World, accompanied by his dog (who talks) and Viola, a newcomer to his world. They both have to run (a lot), escape several life-threatening situations, fight, hide … you get the picture. And it was even more compelling than Inception – I read the whole thing in twenty-four hours, unable to put it down.

The basic elements of the plot aren’t so different from that of many exciting children’s adventure books. The main characters have to pit all their wits against an enemy pursuing them and the terror of the unknown ahead. They are constantly on the run and so don’t have enough time for anything. And they are constantly striving onwards to reach their goal … before it’s too late.

Now that’s not all that different from being stuck in a room with a timer counting down to zero and having to work out how to get through various obstacles to find the crystal. Except, thankfully, Richard O’Brien isn’t shouting over their shoulders all the time.

And, as I pointed out in my quests post, when that’s what you read about, that’s what you imagine will happen. And, while the dreariness of everyday London life isn’t particularly crystalline, well perhaps there are elements of The Crystal Maze to be found.

Take writing a novel, for instance. How can one get past all the obstacles that are lying in wait – the crises in confidence; the flaws in the plot; the unexpected blips; a computer crash? How can one bring it all together? How can one solve the puzzle of what unfolds?

And, although it doesn’t seem like there’s a time limit – especially when one’s not actually writing to a publisher’s deadline – of course there is, it’s just less obvious. It’s like going into a room in The Crystal Maze and not knowing how long you have to solve the puzzle. There’s a timer ticking away and you don’t know when it’ll be too late and you’ll be locked in the room.

Because the thing is, one is almost always convinced that something can be improved, if one had more time. One always thinks, if I only had another couple of weeks, if I just had an extra five minutes, or – in The Crystal Maze – another ten seconds … And, in life, almost every project does have a time limit – a deadline at work, or some kind of pressure to get it done by a certain time.

What I’ve found with writing is that although there is no official time limit, there is an internal one. A moment by which if one hasn’t finished it, then one is so fed up with it that there’s no point in continuing. A moment at which the book becomes too stale to be kept alive.

I have certainly felt the counter heading down towards zero hour in my writing. This novel has taken me over two and a half years. Friends don’t really know what to say anymore. ‘How’s the novel? Still going?’

Unfortunately, writing a novel is one of those things that just does take a long time. For me, I suppose, a very long time. And, during that time, I’ve got incredibly fed up with it. To the point when having to explain the plot to a naïve new friend forces a sigh and a downcast look and I have to try to work out how to change the subject as quickly as possible.

But, just in the nick of, I think I’ve finished it. Well, nearly. The third draft is now all printed off and in a (rather thick) pile on our table. It’s waiting for me to read through it, make the occasional tweak, and then that will be that.

My internal time limit is September. All tweaking must be finished by then.

Nearly there. If I were in The Crystal Maze, at this moment I would be running towards the door, crystal clasped tight in my hand, hoping to be able to squeeze through in the final seconds before it’s slammed closed.

Life is, indeed, like The Crystal Maze. Now I’m beginning to dread what will happen once September arrives and I get into the enormous Crystal Dome, in which I’ll have to try and catch a publisher.

Tense tenses

July 30, 2010

Yesterday I decided to move some of my novel out of the past tense and into the present. Everything felt a bit stale, somewhat dead, lacking in vitality, so I brought this particular section into the present and now it feels more immediate and much more engaging. Phew.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d asked Edmund de Waal, my hero, why he wrote The Hare with Amber Eyes in the present tense. It absolutely works, but it seems like an unusual choice. The book is a kind of history, a kind of memoir – so it is resolutely set in the past. But by using the present de Waal takes the reader straight there, making you feel as though you are standing, for instance, in Charles Ephrussi’s salon looking at his Renoirs and Manets and yellow armchair.

Edmund de Waal said that he didn’t want to appear too authoritative, that the present tense made it more humble. I agree – using the present tense makes everything feel like it’s happening right this second. It removes the filter of memory, the strong viewpoint that makes the past resolutely feel like the author is telling his version of events – his-story – and asserting that story as the one in which the reader has to believe.

There’s something so definitive about the past, even in the most straightforward of sentences. Take, for instance:

Emily went to the shop and bought a loaf of bread.

Frankly, who cares? So what if she went to the shop? It doesn’t really encourage any suspense in the narrative, any wondering what might happen next. In the present tense it’s much more enthralling:

Emily goes to the shop and buys a loaf of bread.

And then what? What happens in the shop? What will she do with the bread? The present seems to encourage one to jump ahead to the future. Perhaps the past is just too far behind. And so the present tense is more, well, tense than the past.

In fact this other kind of tense was on my mind yesterday too. The day before, the fiancé and I are stuck in traffic on Holloway Road and getting incredibly irritable with each other. Just as the stress and tension is reaching its peak, he spots an Indian massage parlour, and we instantly park the car and go in, deciding that it will be the most effective way to get rid of all the tension and make us feel human again. I have a foot massage, he has a head massage and we both re-emerge feeling quite peculiar and almost like we can fly. We certainly feel too spaced out to be able to argue with each other anymore. (See, isn’t it better in the present tense?)

This ‘tense’, as in tension, is from a different root than the other ‘tense’, as in past/present/future etc. The tension ‘tense’ is derived from the Latin tensus, the past participle of tendere, meaning ‘to stretch’. It was used in 1670, meaning ‘stretched tight’, and the sense of ‘nervous tension’ was first recorded in 1821. The other ‘tense’, unsurprisingly, is much older – dating from the early fourteenth century – and derives from the Latin tens, meaning ‘time’.

I like the way these two tenses have joined up into one word with completely different meanings. And I think it helps to think of both of those meanings when choosing in which tense to write. Which tense creates the most tension?

Well, the present creates more than the past – it’s more intriguing. But also, when used in histories or memoirs, or telling stories that really are in the past, it takes on that resonance of ‘stretching tight’. Edmund de Waal, for instance, really stretches the present tense. We know that what he is telling us isn’t really happening now but a hundred years ago. He is stretching the our belief in the present tense, our understanding of it, and in so doing manages to bring the past into the now, back to life.

I suppose the tense which makes me feel most tense is the future. And this is one that is rarely ever written in. Sure, there’s the odd paragraph here and there, but a novel written entirely in the future tense would be a bit odd. The future is usually incredibly stressful. What am I going to do? What will happen? What will they think? What will I say? Where will I be in ten years’ time? It’s enough to bring on a cold sweat.

Yes, there are moments when thinking about the future is incredibly exciting. When you’re literally ‘looking forward’ to something – a holiday perhaps, meeting up with a friend, getting married … But the uncertainty of the future (‘It might never happen’) means there is always some doubt, some degree of nervousness.

Often, it is making these exciting things happen that causes the most tension. So many people complain about the stress of going on holiday! Getting packed, getting to the airport, queuing to check-in/baggage drop, fear of flying … I am trying my utmost not to indulge in any stresses about weddings, but tension-causing questions and moments do always rear their ugly heads. Things like trying to book a date that works with the registry office, the reception venue, a rabbi and priest – and wondering how on earth we’re going to convince them both to give us a blessing …

But then I suppose no tense is truly free from tension. Even the past can have a habit of making one cringe with horror. There are few things worse than remembering, or being reminded of, a situation in which you acted like a complete berk. When you said something unbelievably awful which at the time made you almost want to cry with embarrassment. I’ve been through many of those horrendous moments. The tension is there when you remember them because you know what’s about to happen, and you’ve got to walk that tight-rope of horror in order to get there. Hideous.

So tension is everywhere, in every tense … pretty much inescapable. I think the only possible strategy it to go to the Indian Massage place on Holloway Road as often as possible. Then, for a precious half-hour and a few moments afterwards, life is free of all tension whatsoever.

Cluedo

July 12, 2010

Having spent a couple of days in Florence’s nostalgia and searing heat, I am now happily stationed in a pretty villa in the Tuscan hills, surrounded by undulating shades of green.

While I am here, I will be taking part in an epic game of Cluedo.

Now this isn’t the Cluedo that immediately springs to mind – the board game involving Mrs White in the Library with the Lead Piping. This is a far more devious game.

In this Cluedo, everybody writes down an object which can be found somewhere in the villa or nearby – a weapon – and also a location, again in the villa or nearby. Then we all draw slips of paper out of various hats – the name of someone else here, a weapon and a location. Over the week’s holiday it is our mission to murder that person in that location using that weapon.

Now, luckily, I won’t actually have to club someone over the head with a bottle of sun lotion under the sun umbrella until they die. To kill somebody, one has to get them to take hold of the object, in the correct location. So, I might need to make a certain person eat spaghetti in the shower, or take a nail file into the swimming pool, or carry a book into the rosemary bush … Then I just need to shout ‘Die die die’, and I will have succeeded in my mission. I would then take on their assassination task and continue until there is only one survivor.

At first glance this might have no more literary resonance than an overambitious murder mystery novel. The scene is set – a group of friends in luxurious isolation in Tuscany – but rather than one sinister murder, there are a spate of them, and several different perpetrators.

There are, indeed, several red herrings – essential to any murder mystery worth its salt. Whenever anyone asks anyone else to pass them anything, eyebrows are raised, breath is held – is it really ok to pick up the blueberry jam or will that moment of holding it, while seated at the breakfast table, be the death of you? The seemingly innocent, ‘Let’s go for a wander into town,’ becomes thick with the insinuation of being lured into the correct location, especially if you set off carrying an incongruous object – ‘would you mind carrying this onion for me?’ Twitchy paranoia is quick to take hold.

So yes, it is a little bit like reading an Agatha Christie. A murder is going to take place and one’s eyes are peeled for clues, so much so that it is easy to be taken in by red herrings, to treat every slightly suspicious circumstance as a serious threat. The air is filled with expectation – when’s it going to happen, who’s going to die first, who’s going to be the most canny killer?

But it’s also a bit like writing a story.

You see, you have picked up three pieces of paper, which provide the very rudiments of plot. And somehow, you have to engineer everything to make that situation a likely one. A narrative must be constructed to plausibly conclude with that person in that place holding that object.

It has to be a convincing narrative. If you were to just suddenly ask someone to carry a bowl of spaghetti into the shower they’d never do it. They’d be too suspicious. So, over the next few days, you need to weave the background – the back story. Perhaps you might place a bet with the victim that food tastes completely different depending on where it’s eaten. Or, you might try to get them to eat pizza in the pool first – as a decoy – so that spaghetti in the shower seems like a natural successor.

It needs to be convincing and it needs to be subtle. The victim can’t know what you’re planning on doing to them, just as, when writing, whatever’s going to happen can’t be too obvious. And all the better if something intriguing happens along the way. I suppose, even if you failed to get them to eat spaghetti in the shower, it would be quite a jolly Bildungsroman to seem them eat pizza in the pool, tiramisu on the roof of the car and garlic bread while doing a handstand.

So we’re all here, idling around a swimming pool, spinning our own fictions. One person is suggesting to everyone that it would be a good idea to go into town, and to take a Frisbee along. Another person is suggesting a walk in the hills, with a pot of coffee. And someone else is trying to get a certain person to go and see what’s poking out from behind the rose bush.

I suppose the only problem is that everyone is weaving their own story and so, of course, they get tangled together. Everyone has a different main character, a different objective, conflicting narrative arcs. It is getting rather knotted and messy.

What we need is some kind of omniscient narrator to create a masterly web of intrigue, drawing out particular threads at different times, knotting strands together to make mini climaxes, letting something hang free when our attention should be elsewhere.

Instead, the week will be spent with everyone trying to engineer very peculiar situations indeed. And everyone doing it at once. Brits abroad … I wonder what the neighbouring Italians will think.

When I grow up, I want to be …

June 18, 2010

I was looking through some children’s book reviews in the bookshop, when a particular title leapt out at me – The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. I was instantly transported to being eleven-years-old, when I was utterly immersed in Will’s quest to fight The Dark.

For those of you who missed out on this particular episode of childhood fantasy adventure, the series of books boils down to Good versus Evil, with the main character discovering that essentially it’s all down to him.

Several fantasy plots reduce down to this Manichean scheme. It’s very appealing, especially to a child. It’s a world in which everything is completely black and white – the goodies and the baddies – and the reader fiercely empathises with the main character, who goes on the quest to make sure that goodness prevails. Like Will in The Dark is Rising, or Ged (aka Sparrowhawk) in Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, or Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

I read a lot of books when I was a child. And I loved all those questy fantasy adventures. And spending so much time with my head in between the pages, I emerged believing that I too had a Quest. Of course, I soon realised that I couldn’t do actual magic. But for a long time I thought I was psychic.

I used to play a game with my mother in which I’d tell her to think very very strongly of a particular letter. Then I’d sit down next to her – sometimes I’d have to place a hand on her forehead – and I’d imagine brightly-coloured letters of the alphabet jumping over a fence. There would always be one particular letter which wouldn’t make it over the fence and that was the one.

‘It’s P, isn’t it?’ I’d declare, confident of my psychic prowess.

‘No, darling, it’s not.’

‘Then you’re not thinking of it strongly enough. Let’s try again.’

The process would be repeated.

‘I’ve got it, is it R?’

‘No, darling. Getting warmer though.’

‘Hmm… oh, is it T?’

‘Um, yes, that’s right.’

I don’t think she ever let me guess too many times – it can’t have been the funnest game for a grown-up, after all. And sometimes, quite understandably, she said yes straightaway. Because I was psychic.

I really truly believed that I had these special psychic powers. It was a bit confusing when I didn’t have the same hit rate practising on my friends. But I assumed that either they didn’t have sufficient concentration for the letter to be communicated, or that perhaps it was a special psychic bond between my mother and me. I think it wasn’t until I was seventeen or so that it occurred to me she might not have been telling the truth.

My psychic powers would be key to saving the world in the battle of Good versus Evil. I was genuinely very worried about the fact that I couldn’t ride a horse properly (unlike my cousins), because I would probably need to for the adventures that were going to come my way. But at least I was good at reading signs.

I remember sitting by a tree in our garden and suddenly being absolutely certain that I had to cut off a twig of that tree and keep it somewhere safe (in a shoebox) because when the whole world was blown up, it would be the only surviving piece of nature and I’d have to plant it somewhere in order for life to continue on our planet.

I just knew.

I also knew that I was incredibly special and gifted and important, and one day I would have to save the world. Perhaps it was because, as my brothers are so much older, attention was lavished upon me as though I were an only child.

I remember telling my mother one night before I went to sleep:

‘Mum, I know this sounds funny, but I think I’m a prophet.’

‘Now darling why do you think that?’

‘Because I feel I’m going to do really important things.’

‘Well darling, I’m sure you will do really important things.’

‘I know I will.’

‘Perhaps when you’re older you might be Prime Minister like Margaret Thatcher.’

‘No, I don’t want to be Prime Minister, I’m going to be a prophet.’

In my eleven-plus interview for a rather precocious North London school, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up:

‘I think I’m going to be a bit like the Pope.’

The lady tried to smother a laugh. ‘The Pope? Now, why do you want to be like the Pope?’

‘I think he leads a very peaceful and important life. Isn’t he on some island at the moment?’

I’m not sure why they offered me a place. I didn’t even say I wanted to be a Rabbi. Mind you, when one of my brothers was trying to get into Eton, he  said he wanted to be a professional snooker player when he grew up. He ended up going to Harrow instead.

I did eventually realise that I wasn’t going to be a prophet. I thought for a while about being a poet – it was another way of channelling these very important thoughts that occurred to me into words for the masses. And, as I entered teenagerhood, I gave more thought to being Prime Minister. The problem was, try as I might, I couldn’t find politics all that interesting. The highlight of History GCSE was learning the exotic words Perestroika and Glasnost.

It must have been when it came to choosing A-levels that my belief that I was going to save the world really began to waver. It was suddenly clear that the four subjects I had to pick were going to define not just what I would learn for the next two years, but also at university and then my job and then the rest of my life. Suddenly Good versus Evil and exciting Quests to Save the World were completely out of the picture.

And I was reading books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, which don’t particularly inspire one on to epic adventures.

As I grew older still, horizons got narrower and less and less intrepid. Even becoming Prime Minister became out of the question, as I never went to debates, or bothered with the hacks at the Oxford Union.

It was after my first year at Oxford that I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. This was after a year of reading Dickens and Eliot and Joyce and trying to think very seriously about what these important pieces of literature meant. So it was extraordinary to read these books that reminded me of being a child. The books are partly set in Oxford and yet it’s not really Oxford at all. In Oxford nobody has adventures and goes on quests; they’re too busy thinking about poststructuralism and having essay crises, or dressing up in black tie so they can vomit their way through an induction to some society or rugby team.

I cried at the end of those books. It was in part due to the ending, but it was also because they plucked at a delicate strand of nostalgia. I remembered the little girl who was determined to save the world, who had been buried under years of sobering, boring real life.

When I gave up my office job in publishing in order to write, that little girl was peeping out again, telling me ‘Yes, it is fun helping to make books, but you never wanted to grow up just to sit at a desk in a sterile office all day in which your main form of communication is email (which isn’t psychic at all).’

It can make me feel sad when I look at what some people do for a living. Did anyone really say, aged seven, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a banker’? There are exceptions, of course. There was one girl at school, who said from the age of eleven that she wanted to be a media lawyer; of course she became one. And I doubt she read particularly imaginative books.

But where are all the astronauts and the firemen? Where are the adventurers and the polar explorers? Some people do it. Some become doctors, having felt the calling as nine-year-olds, some become journalists and directors and other things that they’ve always dreamt of. My brother may not have become a professional snooker player, but he has become a concert pianist, which was his other dream.

And no I’m not a prophet, I’m not off on a Quest, and I’m not even Prime Minister. Perhaps it was because I never properly learnt to ride a horse. Like everyone else, I have to live in a real world filled with boring bureaucratic hassles of paying council tax and registering with a local GP. I’m not a writer whose books have been translated into several different languages, who gives talks to packed auditoriums, who anyone’s even remotely heard of. But I haven’t yet given up on the hope that while my writing might not save the world, one day it might make its own little impact.