Posts Tagged ‘Ali Smith’

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!

EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.

There but for the

June 6, 2011

I find there is often an uncanny play between what I’m reading and what’s going on in my life. I suppose that’s one of the things that led me to begin writing this blog …

For instance, as you saw in this post a couple of weeks ago, it was while I was overexcitedly in the grip of wedding fever that I read Diana Athill’s fantastic memoir (yes, VS Naipaul, you are very wrong indeed) about being jilted by her fiancé. Or, last week, I saw Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne, only to then start reading Jiri Weil’s Mendelssohn is on the Roof, in which Don Giovanni features rather heavily.

So, while reading Ali Smith’s brilliant There but for the, which centres on a man who locks himself in a room and, for several weeks, refuses to come out, I couldn’t help but see the parallel between this man, Miles, and my fiancé, who has refused to leave the flat for a similar period of time. Perhaps I exaggerate a little. I try to make him leave the flat once a day, for twenty minutes or so. But it’s not easy. He’s got his final architecture exam next week, and has been working so incredibly hard, feeling that each moment counts for so much, that even taking twenty minutes off feels like an eternity of potential Rhino clicking time wasted.

Miles is the strangely absent centre in There but for the, the lynchpin that holds the novel together. We are told little about him, but each of the, otherwise disparate, main characters knows him in some way. Yes, the fiancé is most definitely strangely absent at the moment, existing mostly in a world of 3D modelling and shortcut keys. Perhaps it would have been a more intriguing period if I’d come into contact with lots of peculiar people with whom he has a tenuous link, like the characters in Ali Smith’s book. I would certainly have liked to meet someone like Brooke Bayoude, a funny, precocious, inquisitive girl, who free-puns her way through the book. She reminds me a little of Jessica Vye from Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona – geeky and cheeky, filled with exuberance. And yet, with a hidden thread of unhappiness and loneliness that fuels their non-stop performance.

There but for the is quite a mad book. In a good way. In that, the whole premise is a bit bonkers – a man going to a dinner party and then locking himself in their spare room for a few months. Another character, Mark, is haunted by his dead mother, who he can hear aggressively hassling him in rhyming couplets:

He couldn’t remember, but the writer, whoever he was I hate to be reminding you again / that writers are not fucking always men described Queen Elizabeth the First quite unforgettably …

(Yeah – boo sucks VS Naipaul.)

It’s funny. It’s mad. It’s playful. And this wayward style, the energy from it, the life, makes for incredible, highly-charged, exciting writing. What a feat.

Yet I think Alex Clark in the Guardian nailed it when she described There but for the as ‘seriously playful’. For underpinning all the word play and puns and silliness, are quite chilling reflections on society and character. ‘Reason in madness’ as Shakespeare put it.

The petty, sniping meanness of the middle classes comes into play at the vile dinner party, from which Miles retreats into the spare room. (The dinner party, incidentally, is hosted by Jen and Eric – generic – good one.) There is the loneliness of little Brooke, who is seen as being too clever for her own good. And the quiet rebellion of old May Young, who is in a nursing home and refuses to take her medication:

She could prove for sure she was not dead yet because there, sweaty in the old claw of an old hand, whose old hand? her old hand, her own, go on open it, proof: the balled-up tissue which held what she’d managed to get out of her mouth of the stuff they gave her to make her forget to remember the day, the month, the prime minister, make her drop her bowl with the custard in it, stuff which she had not swallowed, would not swallow, which she’d held under her tongue when the nurse, Irish-Liverpool, always a cheery word, gave her, and if it wasn’t Irish-Liverpool it was Derek the male nurse, lovely boy from the Caribbean, with May nodding and sending them on their way with a friendly eye.

May’s spirit of defiance – ‘she had not swallowed, would not swallow’ – is all the more affecting due to her age, her ‘old claw of an old hand’, her difficulty in opening it, in getting the stuff out of her mouth. All this text, all these thoughts of May’s are hidden to the nurses, the outside world, masked behind her seemingly innocent ‘friendly eye’.

As well as, obviously, making me think of the fiancé, There but for the reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, another masterpiece which revolves around an absent centre. Her absent centre is, rather more heroically, called ‘Percival’. He is the only character who isn’t given a voice, yet he is the one who holds the other characters together: ‘without Percival there is no solidity’, and:

We are drawn into this communion by some deep, some common emotion. Shall we call it, conveniently ‘love’? Shall we say ‘love of Percival’ because Percival is going to India?

Perhaps Miles is Ali Smith’s Percival. And perhaps There but for the is today’s The Waves. The Waves is a remarkable distillation of modernist writing, and There but for the is a similar achievement for our time. For There but for the seems to me to be everything a novel of today should aspire to be – intelligent and insightful, provocative and critical, yet also witty, playful and, above all, wonderfully, self-consciously wordy.