Mothers and daughters in fiction, drama and reality.

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My bookworm mother, Mavis Matthews, would have been ninety on May 30th, so my present to her memory is to consider some fictional mothers and daughters and link them to the real ones she worked with. Our relationship was much better than the ones in The Long View  by Elizabeth Jane Howard, but Mavis recommended her books to me and I’ve only just got around to them. She was absolutely right (as so often). The story starts in the 1950s and works back twenty five years. Antonia Fleming’s daughter Deirdre has a problem which I’m sure most women can infer, so I’m not going to apologise for any spoilers. Antonia is a privately liberal (for her time and social position) and fairly empathetic though critical mother who in dealing with Deirdre is nevertheless constrained by realities and conventions, and who has been hampered by only having received a cold, detached model of motherhood herself – “alternately maternal and conciliatory” is about as good as it gets. We collide with that appalling relationship, arguably no longer possible today, when the story travels back to her ignominious girlhood. But Howard, and the forewarned reader,  blast any idea that wedded bliss will be a rescue package. Antonia’s ability to cope with one or more hurtfulnesses at a time with incremental, practical self knowledge show why she reacts as she does to her daughter (trying dutifully to help but insisting on her daughter’s independence) and her future daughter-in-law, for whom all she can provide is the space to make her own mistakes. (“She was a nice, ignorant, repressed, unimaginative girl, designed perfectly to reproduce herself…“) Meanwhile with regard to her son, she just shrugs.The-Long-View-Picador-Classic-9781447272243

We also see, briefly, the daughter-in-law’s relationship with her own mother – and the repeated theme of marrying to get away from either a mother’s stifling cruelty or her indifferent abuse. Plenty of men appear in the novel, part of which is written from their more single minded points of view, but the most rounded and subtle psychological portrait is of Antonia throughout her life so far, going back from the worse than mid life crisis of her marriage to her girlhood, with a merciless examination of all the insecurities and discoveries in between. As she experiences them she’s always multi tasking, to use a modern term Elizabeth Jane Howard might have sniffed at but was certainly familiar with. Antonia is busy simultaneously with trivia and with love, death and life, and until middle age she functions mainly in relation to the influence of others – either her father, her lover, her husband, or, the only woman who could have such power over her, her mother, “wondering whether a woman could ever continue to be mistress of herself,a man and a situation.”

Just after finishing The Long View, I saw my good friend Charlotte Keatley’s play “My Mother said I Never Should” (Methuen drama) which may and ought to go on tour now that the London run has ended, for everyone should see it. In another story that moves between the generations, here again are the grandmothers, mothers and babies, being run away from and run back to, separated and united, empathetic and at odds. Here are the illegitimate children, hinted at, disguised, admitted to and celebrated, as a doll they’ve all played with is symbolically played with, discarded, buried and partially unearthed. At the centre was a nuanced, witty, daunting and sometimes disillusioned or sad but never pathetic performance by Maureen Lipman. DSC_0404Behind the scenes, I hear, Maureen Lipman who celebrated her 70th birthday during the run, mothered the three younger actresses  with  warmth and professionalism when an unusual number of difficulties including cast and audience sickness beset the ultimately triumphant production. I saw this play with my partner(childless); the widower of my best friend (two daughters in their 20s), another retired friend (mother of one childless daughter), and my own daughter and son, also in their 20s. From each perspective we found our own deeply moving, sometimes overlapping resonances. This production was a revision of the original 1988 play, so in a sense all four actresses were daughters to the original cast.

Men are referred to, offstage, waiting in the car or deceased, with affection and contempt, desire, hurt and disappointment – although they are less present than chez Howard. But the mothers and daughters are similar to Howard’s – complex mixes of jealousy, misfiring attempts to show love, bids for independence, practical instruction, feeble dependence, assertiveness, misunderstanding and occasional joy. I was touched to find characters pegging out washing as this has always struck me as an ageless, universal image – the technology was much the same for my great grandmother as for my daughter so our gestures, our sensations and our thoughts as we did or do it must be more similar than they would be for many other seemingly mundane acts (dressing a baby, or bringing home shopping for instance). And how we all share that multitasking ability to miss the important things in life!

Margaret: You can get pregnant the first time, you know.

Jackie: Thanks for telling me now.

Margaret: Well if you’d come to me and said –

Jackie: Well I did say I wanted to have a talk with you, actually, and you said “Tell me while we go round the garden centre”, don’t you remember? Anyway, you can’t scare me, because I’m on the pill, OK?

Margaret: Since when?

Jackie: Since before Neil and I went away at half term. But you know that because you’ve been reading my diary.

Never mind: a daughter can always get her revenge, provided the normal order of things is maintained, by reading her own mother’s diary after her death.

In The Infinity Pool, Maria’s mother has to cope with what happens in her own family, juggling her instinct to comfort and care for her daughter with her own need for social acceptance and the beliefs that have surrounded her all her life, so to Maria “a small  amazement penetrated that her mother was being even as mildly pleasant as she was.” KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe preoccupations of fictional and real mothers seem to me more reflective of social change than those of male characters, as women’s lives have changed so much more radically in the past 200 years than men’s, or (like Maria’s island family compared to the British tourists who visit their cafe) vary so much more from one culture and location to another. For each generation this is so: for example, my grandmother knew nothing of how babies are born until she had a miscarriage six months after marrying; my mother didn’t have the freedom of the pill until after her children were born; I assumed that sexual harassment in the workplace was just one of those things you put up with; my own daughter can go online to find a safe flat share in a foreign city. But my grandfathers, my father and my ex husband went out to work in shops or offices, and paid all or most of the mortgage. Here we are in Copenhagen in 1972, second row, left to right, my grandmother, my mother, my sister and myself – with my father next to an unknown stranger in front of us, possibly asleep.

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Unlike my grandmother, my mother certainly knew about pregnancy, wanted or not. Before her marriage she was a journalist, answering problem page letters for 1950s Glamour and Mirabelle magazines. Terrified examples arrived every day from pregnant young girls, but the postbag on this subject was never published. A few years later, social workers visited the maternity ward where I was born trying to persuade women to accept a new pro forma birth certificate  without space for the father’s name and occupation. The idea was that if everyone had such a document, the stigma of illegitimacy would reduce. My happily married mother, with her strong principles, belief in human goodwill and insider knowledge of the problem postbag, volunteered to take one (I don’t know if she asked my father). Sadly, it was one of very few: they didn’t catch on.

I’m sure her mother never discussed birth control with her, but she tried to with us – as well as taking us along to sit with a book  during her  weekly volunteer sessions at the then “Family Planning Clinics” where women could obtain contraceptive advice and supplies. And she placed copies of The L shaped Room and The Weather in the Streets strategically on the bookshelves at homeEven so, it was all a bit oblique, compared with what my daughter can discuss with me – should she wish to. Somehow I’ve never pushed it and in that the generations may be more similar than I’d like to think.

Dear Boy dear girl coverMy mother had two daughters, and much later, she nearly had her book too. It’s a collection of letters from adults to children. She wore her own wisdom lightly, and she appreciated adults passing on such wisdom – also lightly –  to children. She worked on Dear Boy, Dear Girl so meticulously that she was overtaken by illness and it was only published after she died in 1998. To my joy I discovered you can still buy it online in elegant hardback.Your own mother would love it, I’m sure, for her birthday. Here’s a taster, from Louisa May Alcott’s mother Abba to her daughter, the author of Little Women, in 1843:

“Dear Louey, I enclose a picture for you which I always liked very much, for I have imagined that you might be just such an industrious daughter & I such a feeble but loving mother., looking to your labor for my daily bread. Keep it for my sake, & your own, for you and I always liked to be grouped together. Mother.”

There’s an enormous amount to be said on this theme, and I’m hoping to have a happy return to it every time a family female’s birthday puts the idea into my head. But for now, thank you and RIP to Mavis Matthews / Norrie, seen here with my daughter, her granddaughter, in 1992.

Ros and grandma 1992

© Jessica Norrie 2016

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The day the adverb (nearly) died

I published my first novel innocently, by which I mean I wasn’t fully aware of most rules surrounding fiction writing, as expounded by editorial and marketing experts. So it was only after July 2015 that I encountered the bottomless internet pit of advice for the hoping-to-be-published, the soon-to-be-published, the long-ago-published-now-forgotten, and the almost-certainly-never-to-be-published.

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This is what I perceive to be the advice that’s generally offered. It seems that adult writers use too much embellishment. So much of the creative writing advice to adults that I now hear says, simplify. You can have a complicated plot, but it must be clear what’s happening. (Really? – I am habitually accustomed to getting to the end of stories, especially crime, and including those of favourite authors such as Sara Paretsky and Nicci French, with no idea at all what’s going on. The same happens when I watch The Bridge or even Shetland; it’s all part of the crime reading, crime watching experience for me and I rather assumed everyone else was in a muddle too. Understand the plot? Why would you want to do that? The victim doesn’t usually understand – that’s all part of victim-hood, so how better to empathise?)

Simplify the themes, or the message. To that I simply say, why? Most worthwhile messages have complex subtexts and nuances; that’s what makes them interesting. Even among the less salubrious best sellers, there were (allegedly) more than just one or two shades of grey for a reason.

Simplify the setting. Take short cuts and sketch locations sparingly. I disagree. I want my setting to be lush, detailed, part visible, part undergrowth. But most advice says, don’t waste the reader’s time on minute description because another thing you must do is: –


Simplify the language
. Ah. There I (sometimes) (again) have another problem. I love language, I love its richness, its quirks and variations. For example, I don’t want always to  use “said” as was advised by Elmore Leonard and often elsewhere, because if nobody ever deviates from “said”, then “expostulate”, “murmur” , “pontiAdverbs1 editedficate” and “screech” may one day become extinct. Language is littered with dodos, spottable only if you take your magnifying glass and comb through Dickens. And I certainly don’t want to be a party to endangering any more linguistic species, of which some of the most vulnerable are adverbs. The purists don’t like ‘em, apparently. They are to be locked in a cupboard, stood in a corner, left unfed and unnoticed until they wither away. Their crimes include lengthening the sentence (well why not, occasionally – does it harm our waning 21st century concentration spans to be challenged periodically and when it’s relevant?) Another accusation is that adverbs can cause tautology – for example, why choose “she murmured almost soundlessly” (ah, but see my previous point. Maybe we should compromise on this one.) Thirdly, adverbs offend the “show not tell” rule. ‘ “Where are you off to in that lavish ball gown, Cinders?” drawled Rupert lasciviously’ won’t do when you could say: ‘Rupert leered. “Where are you off to…” etc.’ (We’ll draw a veil over the rest.) But lasciviously has such a slurping, drooling, creepy all-men-are-bastards sound packed carelessly into a single word – who’d want to lose the  onomatopoeic  advantages of that?

A visiting friend maliciously seized his opportunity when I suggested this article, picked up my own novel and  read out at random: “…stated Dave portentously” / “Magda adroitly seized the chance…” / “they actually like showering with cold water…”  “They’re all from the same page,” my friend sniggered triumphantly. Well, perhaps I did overdo them somewhat. Like any other author, I have both weaknesses to improve and writing idols whose practice is far closer to perfection than mine, so I decided to check what they do.

From  page 280 of my current read, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View, published by Picador :  “…(she) looked faintly surprised.” / “…she was incredulously still.” /”He could barely hear…”/”He kissed her sensitively…” / “He had suddenly a feeling of power and joy” / “…her violently beating heart.” I think most of them work for the characters in question, though the last is surprisingly Mills & Boonish.

Sticking with my style gurus, I consulted Anita Brooker, Hotel du Lac, Jonathan Cape edition  pp 69-70: “…she poured it out  largely and carelessly, …and almost immediately lit an immensely long cigarette…”. Who’d have thought it?

Then I tried a modern children’s classic. JK Rowling in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Bloomsbury p 190 overdoes it slightly with “the third spider scuttled frantically” and “it started to scuttle frantically” twice in four lines, but perhaps we should blame the editors for that. Moving swiftly on, only six lines later, “instantaneously the spider rolled over onto its back, unmarked but unmistakably dead”.

Finally, I’ll go populist. On p 186 of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl (Ebury Press) she’s in a pub, “expansively medicined  on the MD 20/20” the obscurity of which is a lesson to anyone who goes through their daughter’s books on a random search for examples to back up a blog point. Meanwhile Duck the mule, on p 39 of Michael Punke’s The Revenant, (Borough Press) is “firmly stuck in the mud. It ultimately took half the brigade to pull her out.”Adverbs2 edited

So what do I think now I’ve paraded some evidence? It seems that adverbs themselves and their usage, like all parts of speech, comprise the good, the bad and the ugly. But if the publishing powers that be – who are usually choosy enough already about what they’ll invest in, after all – keep reiterating their anti-adverbial campaign, I’ll simply quote Gone with the Wind – although one of the most effective adverbs of all time  was added to the film script and doesn’t appear in the original book.

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

(But if you do, there’s a fuller guide, wittily written and giving very clear pros and cons, that I discovered here.) 

© Jessica Norrie 2016

Holiday reading, holiday writing

What do you look for in a book for the beach?

Not too thick a spine, nor too glossy a cover for greasy hands or it will fall face down in the sand. This book will be maltreated enough, without an inherent weakness to make it disintegrate eveIsola delle Femmine 2n sooner.

More importantly, the subject can’t be too dense. You need something you can immerse yourself in while squinting one eyed against the sun as your hat brim flops in your eyes, and you baste elbow-propped, sticky with sweat and stained by melted ice cream. Your attention is easily distracted by a nearby volleyball game; by drifting conversations that wander past and fade away; by a sad-eyed vendor who trudges towards you with coloured beads or more mobile phone covers than there can possibly be mobile phones in the world. The banana boat comes in and aeroplanes zoom above. So you need recognisable characters who are different enough to be interesting; clear viewpoints that are just stimulating enough to keep you awake but not too alarmed; a setting that’s accessible and preferably attractive, and a compelling plot.

If you’re a tourist on a beach, reading a book with a tourist beach setting, reality and fiction blend in a haze of holiday delight, enlivened by the frisson of new experiences and dashes of local spice. In your dreams and your siestas, two worlds merge in a dimension that’s neither real nor entirely imaginary.

How does a writer provide it for you?

Holidays lend themselves beautifully to fiction.  When a writer goes on holiday, it’s as though a special show has been staged for them to exploit. The setting is well delineated, a curved beach with palm tree backdrop; a fairy lit restaurant with a dance floor; a winding coastal road, flower covered cliffs on one side, scenic heart stopping abyss on the other. But sometimes there’s poison in paradise – half built hotels and blackouts; sharks and pirates; murder and mudslides….

Holidays have a structuremore flowers... put in place for the taking, and it’s been used by grandees from Virginia Woolf and Arthur Ransome to contemporary Philip Hensher and any number of crimes and romances in between (just check the Amazon genre categories). The beginning is the arrival; the reader becomes familiar with the location at the same relaxed pace as the fictional visitors, but in the second week or the last days it gets more urgent to extract every drop of pleasure and interest from the trip. It’s easy to establish the safe base of a daily routine and build in set pieces – a carnival, a storm, even a full moon will do, for it would go unnoticed in normal daily life. Then, if all goes well, the homecoming may have a sense of achievement or if questions have arisen, one of disillusion. Or there may be no return home…

And, as in pantomime, there are stock characters. The newly married, wide eyed couple. The once handsome loner, elegant here but he’d be louche at home. There’s often a hotel proprietor or a guide, knowledgeable and sexy and just a little bit sad, who provides useful local details and can take some narrative responsibility. The writer can play around with a mysterious traveller, who compensates for the holiday bore (a walk on part only) or set up difficulties via the liability who has an accident or gets ill. It’s mean but irresistible to contrast an innocent beach belle with a woman who, bulging in a strappy top, represents the fading flowers at the end of the too hot day. Her male counterpart, in silly shorts, winks and tries above his whisky always to sound wise.

The writer can keep the world real by occasionally signposting children, building a sandcastle or failing to fly a kite and that’s all that’s needed by way of characterisation for them. But (apart from the children) what you see is not what you get: on holiday appearance is everything and back stories are hidden, but swimwear gives away fewer clues to class, occupation or taste than normal clothing would. These people meet, or want to meet and don’t, or meet too often, fall in foolish love, give away too much too soon and have to retrieve the situation within a time limited framework. They act without inhibition; they bare their souls after making the assumption that they’ll probably never meet again.  Then something happens – a crime, a disaster, an accident, or maybe the weather just breaks. They react, they cope or they don’t, they survive or – doubly tragically when it happens on a dream holiday – they die.

Meanwhile the locals watch, and brood, and plot and celebrate…

You’ll find all this and more in “The Infinity Pool”,  on offer on Kindle at 99p / $1.43 until May 21st  but well worth paying the full price for too. Have a good trip!

 

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© Jessica Norrie 2016

If Shakespeare had sat SATs.

 

 

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They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol’n the scraps.  (Love’s Labours Lost) As well as a writer, I’m a soon to be ex-teacher. Over many years I’ve taught in many settings, and just had the demoralising experience of administering sample SATs tests to children of six and seven.  I don’t propose another tirade against fronted adverbials or to discuss whether a possessive pronoun would be better known as a possessive adjective (eh?) – Michael Rosen and friends are already doing excellent work there. But I do want to say that I’ve spent my teaching career trying to communicate a love of words, both English and others. I’ve seen pupils of all ages, abilities and mother tongues mesmerised by Shakespeare through film (Branagh’s Henry V; Jarman’s Tempest, Polanski’s Macbeth come to mind) and live performance (hats off to Cheek by Jowl, or Theatre in Education companies with minute budgets and toy swords). I’ve also worked successfully from the printed page, overcoming the mean production values of dog eared class sets used in a leaky mobile classroom on a Friday afternoon. (In fact, you can sell the witches on their blasted heath anyhow and anywhere, but Coriolanus needs more PR.) Now having spent so long promoting the Bard, I’d like to call him to my aid in the current debate about teaching grammar to young children. No offence to Michael Rosen, but Shakespeare has an even more incisive way with words.

No profit grows where is no pleasure taken; In brief, sir, study what you most affect. (Taming of the Shrew)

This term, to my shame, I brought small children to a room where they are more used to doing “special work” – collaborative games for social skills, enjoying puzzles, playing instruments, acting plays – and sat them at separate tables with six pages of print, four of them in single spaced paragraphs. (Some of these pupils are still more comfortable reading large format, large print picture books with one line per colourful page, but we have to provide evidence that all of them at least tried the test this year, however unlikely they are to succeed). I handed out a booklet of 18 comprehension questions, and told them to get on with it silently. They find it hard to grasp that they may not ask what even the hardest words mean, or query what a question requires of them. Although some have yet to reach a developmental stage where they can read silently, they mustn’t decode a word by “sounding it out”,  since if they read aloud it might be construed as consulting with each other. They may most certainly not write in the little boxes where the teacher will later note their marks (which fascinate them more than the text). There’s no discussion allowed, although their education up to now has emphasised finding solutions together and using the help of adults and peers as a springboard to independence. They’re bewildered, but illogically proud of their answers – any answers: a few of them have only scored 1 or 2. We distribute stickers or biscuits to “make it better”. However, one or two have cried. The child with eczema is scratching harder than ever; the boy with itchy eyes looks red and puffy, and everyone wants to get a drink of water. The caretaker has cleaned up more “accidents” and vomit than usual this week. Oh, to be saved by the fire bell.

At their age, my classroom had a sand tray, a water tray, a home corner and a dressing up box. I sewed mats (I’m not sure what the boys did. Some things have changed for the better). I painted pictures when I wanted to, not when the timetable dictated, as it hardly ever now does. I (we, together) built with bricks, climbed on logs and performed as an ensemble in school concerts and plays. In year 5 and 6 in at least one local school, they’ve said there’s no time for a school play, because of SATs.

I’m a linguist, I value grammar (yes really) and sometimes I enjoy teaching it, but not when it takes precedence over tactile experiences, spatial awareness, solitary and collaborative play, practical learning of courtesy and how to share and the joys of mutual discoveries. Not every day, in snow or sunshine, during Jubilees,  Diwali and the World Cup, and not to children who often go straight from school to a private tuition session. And certainly not when it shoves so much else out of the curriculum: the paints dry up in the cupboard; the glue order is halved; the design and technology equipment trolley hasn’t been unlocked for years; and each class gets only occasional turns on the expensive, fast weathering climbing frames outside. Even the stories we write using the grammar we have so painstakingly learned are planned to within an inch of their character’s lives: god forbid that writers should explore the joys of rambling on, maybe discovering some interesting byways, or that they should be permitted the freedom to give up when an idea isn’t working out.

Is not birth, beauty, good
shape, discourse, manhood, learning, gentleness, virtue, youth,
liberality, and such like, the spice and salt that season a man?
(
A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

My current pupils are infants. Actually they do not, generally, mewl and puke in the nurse’s arms (As You Like It) by the age of six, though some have developed compensatory forms of dependence on their tablets and phones. Miraculously, most of them do still come to school cheerfully and willingly (if only to get away from the hours of tuition at home). And I would not pretend there was ever a golden age when adolescents zapped along the route to school with much enthusiasm. But current practice is going to take ever lower the age at which they start to whine and creep like snail Unwillingly to school (As you like it).

We’ve seen the writing on the wall, but we’re ignoring it, and breeding an unhealthy, unhappy generation in the name of raising standards. Lord, what fools these mortals be! (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But time will tell, since the evil that men do lives after them. (Julius Caesar) Recent government policy could make for a depressed, hunched, selfish, over worked and underplaying  generation. For the time being my pupils remain mostly delightful, open, imaginative individuals so we can’t be sure, but the signs are some of them may grow up stunted, selfish, taciturn, unable to use an artistic paintbrush or indeed a decorator’s, without independence or the confidence to make mistakes, incapable of manual dexterity, overweight from lack of exercise, asthmatic from pollution, dry-eyed from computer screens. I cannot believe this will make them in the long term any more employable. But I’d love to know the aggregate earnings of Hamlet for the British economy since (approximately) 1602, even though in an age with less prescriptive grammar Shakespeare obviously didn’t realise that To be or not to be is (arguably) a statement, not a  question.

And the saddest thing? It’s that they still trust us, and believe what we are doing for them is constructive, well thought out, and for their protection. That’s why I’m ashamed.  Last week one of them quickly made me this end-of-the-boring-morning card, just because she thought I looked “a bit sad”. In return I’ve colluded in making her into Fortune’s fool (Romeo and Juliet).

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© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

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Review of “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes

noise-of-timeAs so often, Julian Barnes has created an intriguing, beautifully written novel full of trenchantly expressed universal truths.  His subject is music and conscience.  To write great music, providing you have the necessary talent, should be a process involving the composer, his or her inspiration, psychology and external influences.  For the Russian composer Shostakovich, it also had to involve avoiding the displeasure of the authorities, an impossible feat given that they were headed by Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev. One moment he was feted, the next he had become an enemy of the people. If he wrote what he wanted to write, he was accused of formalism, revisionism, the cult of the individual. If he wrote what the NKPD or the KGB wanted him to write, his friends, colleagues, the Soviet public and the foreign press questioned his integrity. But he had little choice in the matter as the potential price of not complying with the authorities was death and banishment for his family. Time and again he had to compromise, to sign speeches he had not written, produce music he despised and swallow being used by the Soviet machine as an ambassador for Soviet values and practices.

Barnes, in the composer’s voice, calls the authorities Power. His only weapon against Power is irony, and yet if people do not recognise what he produces as ironic, he will just appear Power’s  stooge. This book is full of striking images – the composer one of many Soviet citizens who, expecting at any moment to be arrested in the night, wait fully clothed with a bag packed by the lift instead, rather than put their families through the horror of seeing them seized from their beds. He sits at meetings carefully applauding at the right time, but not listening, and accidentally one day claps loud criticism of himself. When this is pointed out by a friend, he just shrugs. His self disgust has become so great that he agrees with the criticism, he says.

I was reminded of “The Sense of an Ending” by the number of times I came across statements, half composer’s voice, half that of Barnes, that encapsulate a universal truth with elegant, simple precision. It was chilling, too, to find so many of these could be applied not just as Barnes does to life under Stalin and Khrushchev, but to the diktats of our own democratic governments too (we’re obviously not under the same level of threat, but nonetheless the description is familiar):

“Bureaucrats assessed musical output as they did other categories of output; there were established norms, and deviations from those norms.”  (p.26).  “…yes, things did get easier and some filthy secrets emerged; but there was no sudden idealistic attachment to the truth, merely an awareness that it could now be used to political advantage.” (p130).

This novel is written in short, stand alone paragraphs, each representing a point in Shostakovich’s thinking, for example, thinking about his first love, his vulnerability, his musical legacy, his relationship to authority and so on.  It’s a short book, but takes a while tor read as the ideas and implacable nature of the composer’s predicament are so intense. It would be an insensitive reader who could race through without putting the book down frequently to take in and digest all the implications and wisdom (or resigned bafflement) of what has been said. This format suited me, though I seem to remember some critics not appreciating it when the book came out.

Finally, it’s a portrait of the interface between genius and an ordinary life lived as best it can be under prevailing conditions.  Very much recommended – for more details visit The Noise of Time.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

Words set in stone

It’s all very well creating expressive sentences by juxtaposing words, but sometimes I switch to shaping bits of stone into mosaics. The two processes are similar, and I thought I’d see how far I can push the analogy. I’m less experienced with mosaic tiles than words, so I’ll need to go back to first principles. But readers should find the parallels easily enough.

A beginner mosaicist may have no idea of her subject or what she can achieve the first mosaics 3.15 149time round. She’s faced with a blank baseboard and a choice of small tiles, called tessarae, in myriad colours, matt or shiny, transparent, opaque, metallic… Tiles are her words. Less conventional (or more inventive) mosaicists work with pebbles, gemstones, coins or broken crockery which equate to onomatopoeia, jargon, quotes or neologisms. (Bear with me!)

The wonderful  Roz Wates, our tutor, explains the history of mosaic arrangement.  There’s a standard grid, or more complex herringbone, tessellation, crazy paving and spiral layouts. To achieve these using only square tiles is tricky, so we have nippers to cut and shape them, enabling us to turn corners and make subtle or dramatic changes in shade and colour. At the start it’s best not to use too many colour contrasts. We could experiment with abstract or geometric ideas, but most people choose a figurative theme, maybe an animal or flowat the starter, and go for natural or fantastic shades to represent it. Roz can control the nippers to achieve exact shapes, but our more clumsy efforts are often jagged or whittled to an unusable crumb. We jettison them, start again, or take an easier option with more straightforward lines. Does it sound familiar, writer colleagues?

We transfer from paper or sketch directly onto the base. There’s no point making it too detailed or precise, because the rigid stones will never follow our design faithfully. Words too, tend to take their own path. If we choose the wrong tiles, cut or place them badly, they stick out and disrupt the design, but well combined tiles have a spontaneous directional flow. These are our sentences. Clumsy ones jar: those that fit move everything forward.

Next come the prologue and chapters. We can overcome insecurity or indecision, or assert control, by starting with a border. This at least has the advantage of getting something Sues haredown. The creator is off the mark, the remaining space left to fill is smaller, and also now contained, which many find less daunting. I don’t use borders, as I’m untidy and like a design to spill off the sides. But a border is the equivalent of an outline, for those sensible writers who start off with one. It’s a statement of intent – some wide and plain, others intricate works of art.

Or we may simply stick down our favourites – it’s surprising how quickly one develops affection for the stones: this is a perfect shape, that catches the light in a particular way. We may set our heart on one and find we can’t use it. But, if we place too many without anchoring them, the whole design may descend into chaos when it’s time to glue and we can’t see exactly which one went where.

Border or no border, the point comes when we can’t put off committing the first tiles. Roz is a great help: with one glance at a paper template, she can identify where to start, in order to emphasise the most important element and keep the background in its place. This is the main character and must be given an interesting personality straight away, or the mosaic will have no life. Most women spend meticulous hours on this but I’ve seen men or children sling something on spontaneously and it immediately looks right.

glue and nippersThis stage takes most time: cutting, placing, replacing, sticking, as a last resort chiselling, if the glue has set but we don’t like what’s appeared. Then we add other characters – a small mirror glint, a patterned stone, an interesting variant of style or colour. Now the sub plots and secondary themes become clear. The story is almost told, and it may have taken months of poring over and carefully selecting each tiny loved piece. It’s imperative to keep calm, taking breaks and fresh air, or the nippers get in a twist.

Roz guides, sounding like a creative writing tutor: “Yes – there’s a logical narrative forming here. “Ah! Now that line looks more coherent…” “You could echo that idea somewhere around this point” – “Oh! That shade is exactly what it needs!” “Now, which element did you want to bring to the foreground?”

I can only edit a mosaic as I go, so I mustn’t rush the ending. I can’t rewrite once my characters are literally set in stone. So here my analogy ends, since good old Amazon does let us upload corrections when an eagle-eyed reader spots a typo (yes, I know there shouldn’t be any, but stuff happens…) I mix a grout colour, against all my instincts slather it over my design to penetrate every crack between the tiles, coating it with a DSC_0308monochrome mush – the frightening equivalent of throwing a bottle of ink all over my only manuscript. Then I clean it off, polish it and there’s my finished product.

For mosaics courses visit www.rosalindwates.co.uk/ 

For writing courses, I recommend the Guardian Masterclasses. I’m interviewed here on the Guardian blog about one I did with them, a huge help when I was populating my novel  The Infinity Pool with characters as individual as pebbles on a beach. If you want to see how the arrangement ended up, you can get it for only 99p in the Amazon May Madness Promotion from 1st-21st May.
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© Jessica Norrie 2016