Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Under the Net

October 24, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a perfectly Autumnal vision of reading.


The Joy of Jane Gardam

January 24, 2011

I wish that we could all be more like Jane Gardam.

I finished her most recent book, The Man in the Wooden Hat, with utter delight. I absolutely adore her writing.

If I see anyone so much as glance at it in the bookshop, I can’t help but gush, ‘Oh I’ve just finished that book and I absolutely loved it. I adored it. It’s so wonderful. It’s just so brilliant.’

They look slightly alarmed. Calm down missy, their expressions seem to say, no need for histrionics.

Sometimes they are so alarmed that they buy a copy (keep the crazy girl happy, she might get dangerous). Sometimes they smile and nod, until I back away. And sometimes they ask me why I love it so much.

But it’s terribly difficult to pin it down precisely. It’s hard to work out quite why Gardam’s writing is so appealing. Is it her sense of humour, her old-fashionedness, her sympathetic characters, her astute observations? Why is it so very funny?

What it all boils down to, I think, is that it is exceptionally honest. Sentences are short, sharp, to the point. Each word is the most accurate, the most fitting, the most perfect word. Her main character, Elisabeth, is admirably no-nonsense. She doesn’t waffle. She sees through difficult situations and gets on with things. And all this pared-down honesty makes it really rather funny.

Take this scene, for instance, in which Elisabeth is getting a haircut in Hong Kong:

The hairdresser preened above her head.

‘Is it for an occasion?’

‘I don’t know. Well, yes, I’m going out tonight.’

The hairdresser smiled and smiled, dead-eyed. Elisabeth had the notion that somewhere there was dislike.

‘Would you like colour?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Would you like to be more seriously red?’

‘No. No, not at all.’ (Am I making sense?) ‘Just wash my hair, please. Take the aeroplane out of it.’

Aeroplane out of it.’ Silly giggle.

Elisabeth knows exactly what is going on, exactly what the hairdresser’s thinking, behind her preening and questions and smiles. She can sense the dislike, yet she remains polite; she doesn’t get exasperated, but retains her composure, takes charge of the situation, and issues clear instructions: ‘Just wash my hair, please.’

It’s very understated and I find it very funny. The humour simmers away through the short sentences, a little bubble escaping every now and again but never really having a chance to burst through. It reminds me of having the giggles in a Maths lesson – holding my breath, pinching my arm, trying desperately hard to think of something else, stifling the laughter as much as is humanly possible. But knowing that at some point, it will explode.

And so here is a rather different scene. Much later in the book, Elisabeth has an encounter with her husband’s clerk, who happens to be a dwarf, and who happens to know about a rather incriminating love affair she had just before she married her husband:

‘No! Get out! Go away!’

He took off the broad brown hat and sat down on the red chair and looked at her from across the room.

‘Go away. I hate you.’

He twirled his shoes, regarded them and, without looking at her, said, ‘I’ve come to apologise. I dealt you the Five of Clubs. It was a mistake. I seldom make a mistake, and I have never apologised for anything before, being of a proud nature.’

She watched him.

‘The Five of Clubs means “a prudent marriage not for love”.’

She watched him.

‘I am very much attached to your husband. I saw only your faithlessness. It affected the pack. I was wrong.’

‘You were always wrong. You stole his watch once.’

He became purple in the face with rage and said, ‘Never! He gave it to me when I had nothing. It was all he possessed. He trusted me. It was to save my life.’

‘You are cruel!’

‘Here is a telephone number you must ring. It will be to your advantage.’

‘I don’t need your help.’

He sighed and put out a hand to his hat and she thought, He may have a knife. He could kill me. He is a troll from a stinking pit.

But he brought out of the hat only the pack of cards, looked at it, then put it away.

This time Elisabeth loses her calm. Her hysteria might be childish and over-the-top but it is still honest. Her sentences remain short and to the point: ‘I hate you. You are cruel. I don’t need your help.’

And Gardam manages to balance, perfectly, Elisabeth’s anger with the dwarf’s placidity. Until, that is, he becomes ‘purple’ with rage. Perhaps this is when a little bubble of laughter might escape. The tension builds and builds, and then I find I am in complete hysterics at the climax:

He is a troll from a stinking pit.

Ha ha ha ha ha. (I actually really did just choke quite painfully on some water I was half-way through swallowing.)

Elisabeth is often in situations in which she is confronted by a certain code. The code of the hairdresser, for instance, in which the hairdresser fawns over her – preening, asking so many questions, giggling in a girlish ‘silly’ way. Or the code of the dwarf, ‘I dealt you the Five of Clubs.’ ‘Here is a telephone number that you must ring. It will be to your advantage.’ All very cryptic. All hinting about something that isn’t said, some information that is missing. Whose phone number is it? Why will it be to her advantage? What on earth does he mean by the Five of Clubs? (Well that, at least, he explains.)

Gardam tells us that Elisabeth was at Bletchley Park during the war. She is particularly adept at cracking codes. And it is this knowledge of codes that carries her through life. It enables her to see through situations and people. She can tell that the hairdresser’s smile is fake, ‘dead-eyed’. She cuts through all the questions with her clear instructions. She can’t be bothered with her giggles and preening. And likewise with the dwarf, in spite of being scared of him, she doesn’t indulge his cryptic messages, she merely ‘watched him,’ and then tells him, ‘You are cruel.’

It is as though she cracks their codes and at the same time chooses not to use them. She will continue to speak plain English and just jolly well get on with it.

And there is the honesty. The piercing through all the waffling, distracting codes. Elisabeth doesn’t mess about. She gets straight to the heart of things. And perhaps it is this juxtaposition between Elisabeth’s matter-of-factness and the other character’s complex codes that makes it so very funny.

I read an interview that Jane Gardam did for the Guardian, six years ago. It begins with a story of her childhood dream of being a writer.

‘I just knew I would be a writer,’ she says. ‘It just seemed the only sensible thing to do.’ As a child, she scribbled secret stories which she hid in the chimney in her room. ‘Then I got chicken pox. In those days in Yorkshire, you never had a fire in your bedroom unless you were very ill. They lit a fire. My hand went up and I brought down cinders. Never mind. It wasn’t much good, I shouldn’t think.’

This is so utterly Jane Gardam. She knew she would be a writer because ‘it just seemed the only sensible thing to do’. And when she encounters her first major setback – all her stories going up in smoke – she doesn’t dwell on it, angst over it, pine and long for what has been lost. ‘Never mind’, she says. Better just get on with it.

‘Never mind’ is the philosophy that seems to underlie all her writing. ‘Never mind all this,’ Elisabeth seems to be thinking all the time. ‘Just cut my hair, please.’ ‘Go away.’ ‘Never mind all this fussing,’ she seems to be saying. It’s chin-up, soldier on. It’s very British.

But sadly, it feels like that attitude belongs to a Britain of the past. Wartime Britain. Make-do and mend. It belongs to a grandparent, rather than a teenager. How I wish it could be a bigger part of Britain today! Wouldn’t it be terrific? Wouldn’t we all be terribly brave and good and nobody would read any ghastly misery memoirs?

But there we go. Best not to dwell on it. Never mind. I shall just have to start reading another Jane Gardam novel straight away.

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.


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.

Dreams and poetry

April 16, 2010

Last night I went to sleep feeling quite anxious. I knew I had to write my blog today and couldn’t think of anything to at all to write about. I soon fell asleep, but the worries must have crept into my sleeping brain, as I had rather a peculiar dream. I dreamt that I would solve the problem of having nothing to blog about by writing a poem and posting it on the blog. However, the only way I could compose the poem was by separating a huge lump of cooked spinach into little rectangular clumps on my plate. The size of each clump represented the length of the line of poetry. It wasvery important to make several clumps of spinach exactly the same size or else the lines wouldn’t scan properly – they would have too few or too many syllables.

I woke up and, I have to admit, it took a little while to get over the disappointment of not having a poem perfectly formed in my head. I even had a cursory glance in the fridge to see if there were a bag of spinach hiding in there, which might coax some verse out of my subconscious. Then I remembered I’d had some spinach for lunch – that must have been where that bit of the dream came from – and I realised that it was really just an anxiety dream.

So no, this wasn’t a Coleridgean ‘Kubla Khan’ moment. Or a Keatsean ‘Sleep and Poetry’. Never mind.

But then, Coleridge, Keats or anyone else back then wouldn’t have just dismissed it as a Freudian ‘anxiety dream’. I expect if they’d dreamt about arranging spinach into a poem they would have awoken and written something wonderful – even just a fragment of it. (In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a splendid spinach patch decree … ) Freud and therapy and the dismissing of such moments of creative inspiration into ‘anxiety’ or ‘penis envy’ or something similarly disappointing weren’t on the scene at all. 

The earliest dream poems that I know are Chaucer’s. He certainly didn’t put dreams down to anything Freudian. In fact at the beginning of ‘The House of Fame’ he writes:

For hyt is wonder, be the roode,

To my wyt, what causeth swevenes

 He goes on to list all sorts of possible reasons for dreams (or ‘swevenes’), from ‘folkys complexions’ (the balance of people’s bodily humours) to ‘dysordynaunce / Of naturel acustumaunce’ (a disordered routine), or lovers ‘That hopen over-muche or dreden/That purely her impressions/ Causeth hem avisions’ (who hope too much or are afraid that their powerful emotions cause their visions).

I suppose, in poetry, this last explanation can often be the right one. Think of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. The ‘knight-at arms, / Alone and palely loitering’ falls in love with a beautiful fairy who takes him to ‘her elfin grot’:



And there she lullèd me asleep

And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –

The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too

Pale warriors, death-pale where they all;

They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gapèd wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here

Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is withered from the lake

And no birds sing.

What a warning to an obsessed lover! Once under the spell of a beautiful lady, you are as good as dead. ‘No birds sing.’ Not even Keats’s nightingale (‘light-wingèd Dryad of the trees’) is there to keep the poor pale love-lorn knight company.

Well, I’m pretty sure my dream about writing a poem in spinach wasn’t a warning about falling in love. And sadly it wasn’t really a moment of inspiration – there is no green-tinged poem to follow.

But at least it gave me something to write about. And it meant I spent all morning happily reading poetry. So there’s not much to complain about at all. 

Rubbish and Icebergs

March 22, 2010

My first proper outing, post-tonsil-removal, was to an enormous rubbish incinerator. Please don’t ask why.

I still can’t get over the row of absolutely gigantic rubbish pits, into which lorry-loads of black bags are dumped before being fed into the incinerator. There was something so astonishing, so humbling, about walking above these enormous pits of rubbish. They are on such a different scale to normal life. It made me feel tiny, as though I’d just drunk the ‘drink me’ liquid in Alice and Wonderland.

(Incidentally, the incinerator is more eco than it sounds – the heat from the burning rubbish powers steam-driven turbines, which create electricity. Magnets extract ferrous metals for recycling, other residue is used for building roads, and numerous filters mean that all emissions are well within environmental limits.)

What a huge amount of rubbish, I kept thinking. But the lady who gave the tour kept stopping herself from saying ‘rubbish’ or ‘waste’. She made herself use the word ‘materials’ instead. She explained, ‘Nothing that we get really is waste, because we use it and turn it into something else. All of this,’ she gestured down at the pits, ‘is really our materials.’ And just like that, the huge pits of rubbish are transformed into great piles of materials – no longer waste, but things of use.

How optimistic, I thought, how inspiring. How remarkable that changing something’s name really can change one’s whole perception of it.

But what about waste that doesn’t come in big black bags? What about rubbish writing, for instance? Just think about all those words, all those stories, all those descriptions, dialogues, pieces of action, that get cut from books and thrown away. Well, what happens to them?

When I started writing my novel, I envisaged it in three parts. The first and last parts would be set in London, and the middle, most crucial, section would be set in India. The novel is, you see, all about a young London artist who goes to India and happens to arrive on 7/7, the day of the London bombings.

So I began writing all about her life in London – her friendships, her relationship with her mother, the parties she went to, the whole East London scene – as she prepared to leave it all behind and go to India. I’d spent a few months in India before, but had booked another trip for research. It took me a while to summon up the courage to ask for the time off work, to answer the inevitable questions about why I was going – ‘Oh, you’re writing a book are you? How interesting. What’s it about?’ (Particularly painful as I was working in a publishing house at the time.) So the trip wasn’t until around ten months after I’d started writing the novel. This left me with plenty of time to work on the first section, ages to polish it, re-polish it, cut bits out, add bits in, move things around. I couldn’t move on to the second section until I’d been back to India.

So I went to India, returned and wrote the second section, wrote the final section and completed the first draft. The whole thing had taken around fifteen months. It was only once I’d written the second section, which grew much longer than I’d anticipated – over twice the size of the first section – that I realised I needed to rethink the structure of the book. You see, the first section was actually not particularly interesting. Who really cares about someone’s preparations for going away? I’d much rather read about the trip, the actual experience, rather than the anticipation. And how much more dramatic to begin on 7/7, the catalyst for the drama, rather than enduring two months of build-up.

I realised I had to do quite a difficult thing. I needed to cut the whole first section. That first section was around 20,000 words – around 90 pages of a double-spaced word document. It was months of getting up very early in the morning to work on it before going into an office. It was the result of so much thought, so much work, so much time. And now it was just going, deleted, gone. What a waste.

This realisation was not long before I quit the publishing job and started working in a bookshop. I found myself doing several shifts with another writer and, on quiet mornings, we’d chat about our works-in-progress.

‘God I had to do this really awful thing,’ I confessed.

She was all ears.

‘I had to cut the entire first section. It was 20,000 words and I just had to get rid of it all.’

‘Oh you mustn’t worry about that,’ she said. ‘Haven’t you heard of Hemmingway’s Iceberg Theory?’

I hadn’t. I expect you probably have, but, if not, the idea is that a writer can omit a great deal of what he’s writing about, leaving it for the reader to infer. Like an iceberg: one sees the tip of it and knows that there’s a lot more underneath. Or, in Hemmingway’s own words, from Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of a prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

So, it doesn’t matter that I had to get rid of those 20,000 words because I know that they happened. Thanks to those 20,000 words, I know about the main character’s friends and family, what clothes she wears, what parties she goes to, what her paintings look like, how she decided what to pack. I don’t need anyone else to read all about them in that much detail, but I just have to hope that a sense of what’s gone on, before she went to India, comes across in the rest of the writing. I’ve submerged most of the iceberg, making it glide around with more ‘dignity’. Well, I hope so.

So I suppose that first section isn’t really rubbish, or waste, it’s material. It’s still part of the novel, but buried underneath it. While I was writing the second draft, I tried to fold in little bits of that first section – occasional reminiscences and fond memories, the odd passing reference – glimpses of the tip of the iceberg.

But what if the work gets sunk by icebergs? What if, while cutting bits out of a work, paring it down to an elegant white tip, too much gets omitted, too much is lost? Or what if the icebergs aren’t good enough? What if I finish the novel (icebergs and all) and then nothing happens to it? What if it doesn’t get published, if nobody reads it, if it ends up no more than a file taking up some space in my computer, sheets of printed-out paper that end up in those enormous rubbish pits, ready for incineration?

Well perhaps the Iceberg Theory can be extended to outside a piece of writing. Even if this novel becomes nothing more than ‘material’, ending its life as a spark of electricity, or is recycled and turned into the humble fibres of a newspaper sheet, then the novel will be my very own iceberg. Admittedly, if the incinerating/recycling fear is realised, the novel probably won’t be very good, but I still will have written one. I will have given up all that time, all that thought, to something. And that will continue to affect everything that I do – reading, talking, working, thinking … The novel won’t ever be completely lost, completely wasted, it will just be submerged in the past. And even if I do decide to completely bury it, to move on to something utterly different, I’m sure its little white head will still be poking out.

I hope so, anyway.

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.

Blub at the smug in Julie and Julia

March 15, 2010

I watched Julie and Julia last night. I had wanted to see it at the cinema, but when I suggested it to my boyfriend, one wintry Sunday evening, I was told in no uncertain terms that it was too girly. We went to see District 9 instead. (Which was actually stupendously brilliant, not at all the rubbish sci-fi film about aliens I’d anticipated.)

So last night, knowing by now that yes the film is a bit trashy, a bit girly, but nonetheless gentle and heart-warming, I thought that, with the excuse of still recovering from my lost tonsils, I would settle down to watch it.

For those of you who don’t know, Julie and Julia tells the story of Julia Child – dotty American lady in Paris in the 1950s who then writes a seminal French cookbook for Americans – in parallel with the story of Julie Powell – a modern-day New Yorker, turning thirty, who gets over her mid-life crisis by writing a blog about cooking Julia Child’s recipes.

Meryl Streep plays Julia Child and she’s magnificent; I loved this half of the film. She totters eccentrically through Paris, gorging on oysters, pastries and fruit; she frantically practises chopping onions so as to be better than the men on the cooking course; and, of course, she cooks in stunning French kitchens. It’s escapist enjoyable fun, despite the sinister background of McCarthyism and the moments of sadness when it becomes clear that she wants, and can’t have, a baby.

The Julie half of the film – well, I’m ashamed to say that it brought out a rather horrid, unattractive side of me.

The problem began at the beginning, when I instantly empathised with the Julie character. I have a bad habit of doing this in films and books. Whenever the main character has any of the following traits – writes, reads, plays the cello, goes to Oxford, lives in London, has brown hair etc. – some part of me always thinks, ‘Ah, that’s just like me.’ And then it’s just a short progression to thinking, ‘Ah, this film is actually kind of about me.’ Other recent occurrences of this curse have been with An Education (plays the cello, goes to Oxford, lives in London, has brown hair), and A Long Way to Verona (writes, reads, definitely has brown hair in my imagination even if it might not be specifically mentioned in the book).

In Julie and Julia I thought, ‘Oh, she’s just like me, she tried to write a novel and she’s writing a blog and she feels like all her friends are more successful than her.’ So I instantly had a loyalty towards Julie, I was on her side, I shared her anguish during the ghastly lunch where all her friends boast about getting promoted, talk on their mobiles and don’t understand what she’s doing at all. (Sorry friends – not all of you are like that.)

But this loyalty quickly came to be tested. Julie endlessly complains about her apartment above a pizzeria, coming across as a really spoilt brat. I’m sorry, it’s a 900 square foot huge open-plan flat in New York, and, if she weren’t so into cooking, being so close to a pizza place would be heaven. Somehow she’s lucky enough to be married to a handsome, successful man, who puts up with her endless tantrums and doesn’t mind the fact that she gets up at 5.30 a.m. to write her blog, and that all she seems to do, apart from work, is cook. But yet, to Julie, her life seems to be awful, and she strops around more like a teenager than someone turning thirty.

‘Woah, she looks pretty high-maintenance,’ said my boyfriend, after one of her early strops. No, I thought, feeling loyal towards her. After all, she’s just like me. It’s difficult being a misunderstood writer. But it doesn’t take very long for me to begin to think – oh, maybe she is quite high-maintenance, and spoilt, and actually rather annoying.

Now in films, of course there are characters whom one doesn’t like. These tend to be the baddies. But the problem in Julie and Julia was I found myself not liking one of the heroines, once I’d already decided (using my stupid inbuilt-identifying-with-mechanism) she was actually a version of me. Not ideal.

The situation got worse. Julie’s blog becomes very successful and she starts being hideously full-of-herself about it, showing off to people about how many comments she gets on a post (53!) and whining to her boyfriend about how all these readers depend on her. Obviously this is unbelievably annoying and conceited of her. But, crucially, this is where the identifying-with impulse begins to let me down. You see, I identified with her as a struggling writer/blogger, not as a successful one. The worst bit is when she has sixty-something messages on her answer-phone, mostly from literary agents and publishers, following an interview she’s had in the New York Times.

At this point I am filled with rage. I have been betrayed by sweet little hopeless Julie the struggling writer, who admittedly can be quite annoying but at least is no better than me. Now she has morphed into a smug brat, who is positively thriving. She is even more irritating and she is successful. Hundreds of people read her blog and now she’s going to get a book published after all. It’s not fair, I think, and find myself beginning to cry. Incidentally, crying when one has just lost one’s tonsils is so painful that one wants to stop crying straight away. I snivel and snuffle and try to pull myself together.

Boyfriend comes over and comforts me. I now feel akin to Julie – only a less successful version – I am having a tantrum and behaving like a spoilt brat and he is putting up with it. This is awful. Inexcusable. I feel even more full of rage. I am better than this, I tell myself. I must be better than her.

I sit there feeling glum and trying to be brave while the remainder of the film unfolds. It is only when Julie is down to cooking the final recipe in the book that I have an epiphany.

Frankly, who wants to bone a duck, fill it with disgusting-looking mucky mincey stuff, cover it in pastry and bake it? Why doesn’t she just get a pizza from the conveniently-located restaurant downstairs and get a life?

And no, I’m not bitter.


January 25, 2010

People often talk or, ironically, write about ‘writer’s block’. Well I’m going to write about a different affliction, which I shall christen ‘thought-block’. It’s worse.

I think in words. I’m pretty sure that most people do. Although maybe artists sometimes think more in terms of colours or compositions, and then I suppose musicians might think in melodies, or even in harmonies. Intriguing … But none of those is an option for me. My thoughts are definitely in word-form.

The problem with my word-thoughts is that sometimes they get into a bit of a muddle. Instead of forming sentences, they are prone, occasionally, to spin entropically into mess. My head can become full of nonsensical phrases crashing into each other, so I have no idea what I’m thinking – what is trying to emerge from the chaos. This is thought-block. And it’s ghastly.

Yesterday I had a severe attack of thought-block. I woke up and felt awful. Really dreadful. My boyfriend was going away for ten days and my weekend was looking rather bare. As I said goodbye, I could feel all the words in my head begin to spin and mix themselves up, as though in a tumble-dryer. It swiftly became a blind empty panic, which was completely paralysing.

Once he’d gone, I lay in bed with a feeling akin to that which Salman Rushdie describes so astutely in his ‘Notes on Sloth’ in the current issue of Granta magazine. (109 Work. I can’t find the essay online anywhere, but, incidentally, it looks like it was a rather controversial piece. Details are in this article from the Bookseller.) Rushdie describes a new boy at boarding school, who starts to feel ‘unwell in an unfamiliar way’: ‘his arms and legs feel heavier than they ought to be. It is actually difficult for him to get out of bed and dress …’ I lay in bed in my dressing-gown, looking out of the window and half-listening to Radio 3, unable to move. Perhaps I was indeed feeling ‘slothful’. Maybe ‘depressed’ is slightly kinder. ‘Thought-blocked’.

I couldn’t get hold of any thoughts: words were just flying, slippery and dangerous, through my head. Unsure how to stop the stream of crescendoing nonsense and gather myself together enough to get out of bed, I phoned my mother. We arranged to go for a cup of coffee in half an hour’s time.

The coffee was disastrous. I still couldn’t articulate anything from my head, so trying to have a conversation was unbelievably frustrating and irritating. I found myself being completely horrid to mum and then we both started crying in the middle of the coffee shop. Everybody looked. It was grim. I eventually decided to leave.

I walked to the British Library. By then, my thought-block was reaching a critical level. My head was filled with noise – nonsense, folding in on itself again and again; my eyes were brimming with tears; I was full of hot rage about everything and nothing, and I didn’t know why. I had to sort my head out or else I would continue to short-circuit and I really didn’t want to explode.

I got to the British Library, sat down, opened up my laptop and began writing a list. Forcing out sentences was a way of freeing the words trapped in my head. The dust began to clear and I could see the problems. Here is the list:

1. My boyfriend has gone away for ten days, leaving me on my own. This makes me feel at once sad, because I miss him, and annoyed with myself for being so pathetic. After all, it’s not for very long at all, and we will speak lots on the phone. I should be tougher about it.

2. I have no plans for today, and can’t quite face finding a structure for a flat empty day, all on my own. This is connected to problem 1.

3. It was stupid of me to meet mum, when feeling like this. Now I feel even more frustrated and I can add guilt on to that too.

4. As a result of 1 and 2, I have a clear day ahead. I know that I should make use of this time to do lots of work on my novel. But my head’s in such a state I won’t be able to concentrate, and so it will be a waste of a day. I’m sure that real writers don’t get thought-block.

And it was that last thought that did it. Writing – maybe not my novel, but writing nonetheless – unblocks my thoughts. There they were, written on the screen in front of me, and my whirring head finally began to cool down.

The thing is, I think better when I write the words down. My particular word-thoughts don’t really care for being spoken; hearing them out loud or in my head doesn’t untangle or clarify them at all. They need to be typed up in black and white. Then they are given substance; they become visible, real, understandable – and so conquerable.

Yesterday actually turned out rather well. Soon after completing the list, a friend asked me round for dinner, so problem 2 vanished. The hilariously fun evening which ensued took the edge off problem number 1 and, on the bus heading down into south London for dinner, I spoke to my mum and apologised about earlier, thus dealing with problem number 3. But the best thing that came of yesterday was that, in an attempt to continue writing, but not get hopelessly stuck with the novel (problem number 4), I began this blog. Emerging from the ashes of entropic thought-block, EmilyBooks made its way into the world.