Posts Tagged ‘Graham Greene’

Getting Wonderfully Lost

August 16, 2010

There’s something so urbane about standing on those terraces on a sunny afternoon gazing across London. It makes you feel like a citizen of the city.

So said Steve Tompkins, the architect who redeveloped the Young Vic, about Lasdun’s modernist National Theatre on London’s South Bank. And it is a feeling I share on Saturday afternoon, when weaving my way around the South Bank, getting lost on my way to the Hayward Gallery.

I get off the bus on Waterloo Bridge and then go down, and then up, and then around, and then up again, and then around a bit more. I lose my bearings almost immediately and am soon reduced to guesswork, following the concrete around, occasionally climbing a staircase, turning a corner, hoping for the best.

And, as I walk, each step brings new vistas across the concrete. I see again and again incredible interlocking planes, lines, spaces; the greyness the perfect foil to the colourful crowds of skateboarders, freerunners, theatre-goers, families, tourists and the backdrop of the London skyline.

Needless to say, I don’t find the staircase leading directly from Waterloo Bridge to the Hayward Gallery entrance until it is rather too late. But I don’t mind – getting lost amidst the concrete is a wonderful experience.

But this experience of getting lost in a concrete jungle, finding oneself stuck in something akin to an Escher drawing, is usually a criticism of the South Bank and also another of London’s modernist complexes, the Barbican.

Architect Piers Gough responds to this criticism in a pretty inspiring article for Building Design (here), in which he lauds the Barbican as inspiration for his own architecture:

The criticism is a bit off because we expect and enjoy getting lost in cities and finding unexpected routes and vistas. The Barbican has these in spades. If you’re in the mood to explore, it’s a wonderful place with its changes in level, vistas up and down, intimate areas, dramatic piazzas, the gardens opening up below then there are amazing glimpses out to the city’s slick office buildings and the dome of St Paul’s. Of course the residents themselves rather revel in their maze-like world.

He’s right. Getting lost in the Barbican, or on the South Bank, can be exhilarating, eye-opening. It makes one see the city in new, unexpected ways. It makes me feel proud of London, excited by it again, amazed at how it all meshes together. As Steve Tompkins said, ‘a citizen of the city’.

Of course, on the occasion that one is running late and trying to get from A to B as quickly as possible, getting lost en route isn’t always such a fun experience. Enough of these amazing concrete views, where the hell am I? would be the predominant thought.

Yes, getting lost isn’t enjoyable, playful or particularly enlightening when one doesn’t have time to kill. And people rarely have time to kill in London – one of the most fast-paced, time-precious places in the world.

People often have a similar frustration in the bookshop. The books are arranged in a slightly, well let’s say ‘idiosyncratic’, manner. Most people expect everything to be arranged A-Z by author and neatly divided into sections like ‘Philosophy’, ‘Women’s studies’ etc. Frustrated when looking for a famous book, they march up to the till asking crossly, ‘Why don’t you have The Quiet American?’

Then we calmly explain our system and dash off to fetch them the book, often dragging them slack-jawed in tow.

Somebody complained to me about it the other day. ‘How am I supposed to find anything on my own? I always have to come and ask you to get it for me.’

Well, you see, that’s kind of the point. Everyone who works in the bookshop really loves books. We have all been involved in the book world for several years. We are all full of recommendations, tailored to suit a huge variety of needs. What makes the job interesting, and what makes the shop a success, is being able to talk to people about books.

If a customer comes up and asks me for The Quiet American, this sparks all sorts of conversations. We can talk about Vietnam and other good books about it – perhaps Norman Lewis, for instance – about Greene and other books by him, and then I might mention the new biography of Greene’s family by Jeremy Lewis. Likely as not the customer doesn’t know about this new biography but is very interested in it. Or he hasn’t heard of Norman Lewis. Or he’d like a few suggestions of other particularly good novels by Graham Greene. I go and bring him all these books and he spends a while in the shop having a very happy browse. Either he leaves with The Quiet American and is grateful for the help, sure to return soon. Or he leaves with The Quiet American and some of the other books that I’ve suggested, pleased as punch to have been introduced to them. And, of course, I’m happy as anything not only to have sold some more books, but to have helped someone find a good book or two.

Surely this is better than having everything unimaginatively signposted? Yes, people get momentarily lost, but then they get help and then they find all sorts of things, as well as what they were looking for.

The problem with the Barbican and the Southbank is that people – perhaps Londoners (dare I say male Londoners?) in particular – are rarely inclined to ask for help or directions. Rather than asking a passer-by which way to get to the Hayward, or where to find an elevated walkway, or the loo, people tend to persist in trying to work it out for themselves.

This trait has been greatly worsened by iPhones, with their Google maps app. Why bother to start a conversation when one can plug into some technology and work it out for oneself? Well, perhaps because people aren’t always as adept as map-reading as they would like to think. And because the Google maps of the Barbican and the Southbank are as good as useless in any case.

So perhaps an unexpected product of these two Modernist complexes is the need for conversation. Perhaps, in these particularly urbane London landscapes, we should be less urbane. Perhaps we should step out of our insulating bubble of iPods and iPhones and solitary individual lost wanderings and ask other people the way. After all these complexes are Modern, not Post-Modern. Conversations aren’t such terrifying things to start. Other people hanging out at the Barbican and the Southbank are generally pretty friendly, pretty interesting, happy to help if they can.

Unless, as was the case with me on Saturday afternoon, one is in no particular hurry and perfectly happy to get quite wonderfully, unexpectedly lost.

Reading and Writing in Cadences

March 18, 2010

Just before dropping off into a snooze in an attempt to heal the wounds, post-tonsil-removal (if only I could use that excuse forever), I often think about my novel-in-progress. I’ve felt quite guilt-stricken about not really doing any work on it for nearly three whole weeks now (ouch, but I shall keep blaming the tonsils) and so these little not-quite-fully-awake thought meanderings tend to be an attempt to feel a bit less slack.

Yesterday I was thinking about the atmosphere that I want to surround the ending. From the very first moment of the novel’s conception – one glorious evening in the bath – I’ve wanted the ending to be about creating a certain feeling, something murky and unsettled, something that doesn’t let the reader walk away and leave it completely behind, something that resists a perfect resolution.

Perhaps because I was in that half-asleep state, and perhaps it was the remnants of painkiller still in my bloodstream (sadly I don’t think I can compare myself to a pre-‘Kubla Khan’ Coleridge), it occurred to me that what I need is to write an imperfect cadence.

Yes, an imperfect cadence, as in music theory. I have to say I’ve always been rubbish at music theory, but I just about grasped the concept of cadences. They occur at the end of a piece, or the end of a phrase, and there are four basic types: perfect, imperfect, plagal and interrupted. You can listen to them all here.

But this isn’t supposed to be a not-particularly-good crash course in music theory. I thought it could be quite fun to think of cadences in books. Bear with me …

Essentially a perfect cadence – from the dominant note (Vth in a scale) to the tonic (Ist in a scale) – feels like certain resolution. Finished, ta-da, the end. So, for novels, although this must be by far the most common closing cadence, it is particularly apt for the end of a detective story. Think of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories. All the characters are assembled in the drawing room, your mind is spinning from all the different possibilities of who the murderer might be, and then Poirot puts everyone out of their misery, unmasks the villain and peace is restored.

The other easy one to spot is a plagal cadence. This is from the subdominant (IV) to the tonic (I) and can be quickly recognised as the ‘Amen’ at the end of hymns. It sounds churchy, religious – the correct resolution but in a bit of a preachy tone. In book terms I’m afraid that Graham Greene instantly springs to mind. I know he’s a brilliant writer but why does everything always have to end up being about Catholicism? The same goes for Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Then there are the two types that are harder to recognise. The imperfect cadence is, unsurprisingly, the opposite of perfect. So the progression is from tonic (I) to dominant (V). It feels unfinished, the listener is waiting for the tonic to come back again at the end and a happy resolution to be found. It leaves one unsettled, uncomfortable, uncertain of what will happen next – because something almosthas to happen next. It makes me think of Twin Peaks – I will never ever forget that final image. And King Lear, when Albany, Edgar and Kent are left standing at the end looking forward into an uncertain future after the horror that has passed. ‘We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’ What will they see? What will happen next? What can possibly happen next when the world seems to have exploded into nothingness? That’s what I want in my novel.

And then, finally, the interrupted cadence. This is from the dominant (V) to any note that isn’t the tonic. It often goes to the supertonic (II), the subdominant (IV) or the submediant (VI). I expect there is a better, more nuanced explanation of this somewhere, but what matters for me is that this cadence always feels utterly unresolved. It’s more of an opening into something new than an ending. I suppose the effect is an extreme version of that of an imperfect cadence – one isn’t so much waiting for resolution, as waiting for a whole new chapter. This cadence brings to mind books that were initially published in serial form, like Little Dorrit, or pretty much anything else by Dickens. And it doesn’t make me think of the final ending, it makes me think of those significant moments in the plot where one episode ends, leaving one desperate to know what happens next. Cliffhangers. Although they’re now to be found more in TV soap operas than in novels.

It’s a comforting thought, that rather than striving for the perfect ending, an imperfect one can be infinitely more haunting. My eyes (and ears) are peeled remain peeled for more.