The end is the beginning

In keeping with my new snappy style, I’m allowing myself 999 words max for this post. Most bloggers manage with much less; my problem is, I like wordy writers (Dickens, Balzac, Woolf) and my models have made me wordy myself. I’ve learnt that to write well in a spare elegant style, much as I admire it (Stoner, My name is Lucy Barton), you have to write better than I can. I bury infelicities in my forest of verbiage, but would be rumbled if every word stood out clear from the page. A writer with six hundred plus pages to fill can explore their own meaning aloud. It must be nailed first time in a novella.

28260537What I produce currently is somewhere in between. My beginnings are strongish and longish but not defined enough; they show just enough promise to keep readers on board. My middles are saggy, pushed upright by occasional props (I’m still referring to my books, not my body). My endings just happen, like a learner parking. I’m aware of my writing shortcomings: hence taking a course named “Beginnings and Endings” at Jane Austen‘s house last week, run by Rebecca Smith.

Gentle reader, you may feel I could have chosen a less wordy writer than Austen, but she was a model of economy compared to her predecessors. She packed a universe of meaning into a paragraph or sentence where they had taken pages. She might start with back story (Persuasion) but she was through it in a few pages where other writers of the time needed many chapters. Or she’d start with apologies (for forefronting such poor heroine material, in Northanger Abbey). Other books leap straight into the drama of the situation: money’s tight, so a daughter must be offloaded onto richer relatives (Mansfield Park); five daughters need husbands, two imminently (Pride and Prejudice). Her beginnings are dynamic; reader is faced with situation, situation develops. Characters encounter drawbacks, relief, more drawbacks. The situation of the main characters is resolved and secondary characters illustrate other possibilities. It’s very neat, very satisfying, very tongue in cheek, and produced almost clandestinely. After the breakfast dishes were cleared, and if she didn’t have to entertain younger relations or attend to her mother, Austen would settle in a cramped corner at a tiny table to write her morning pages until the room was needed for lunch.

 

We had rather more space and time for our writing, in the learning centre or wherever we liked in the flowering garden. We were greeted morning and afternoon with the most hospitable refreshments I’ve known a course provide (RIBA take note, with your measly coffee coupon on your otherwise excellent writing day). We spent the morning considering Austen’s and our beginnings, and our ticket included a entry to the house. If you can’t get there yourself, take a guided tour with my Smorgasbord colleague’s Jane Austen on a Motorbike, and my own slideshow below. Our purpose, though, was to write.

 

When I ran teacher training, the session after lunch was known as “the graveyard”. I had to hit the whiteboard running, with my most invigorating material to avoid participants’ yawns and snores. Whether or not Rebecca had that in mind herself, her proposal for the afternoon was dynamite. Simple, but an eye opener for me. “Start with your ending,” she said. “If you know where you’re heading, it’s easier to get there.” And so we wrote our endings. Then we wrote our very final pages, the mood we wanted to leave the reader in. I hadn’t been listening, and wrote the final ending before the main ending (do keep up at the back). But even doing that the wrong way round proved her point: to plod along writing your narrative according to its chronological order may well be what makes it sag. Like dragging your feet on a long walk, when the pub you were hoping to reach for lunch is always beyond the next hill and when you do get there, they’ve finished serving food.

13585779I’ve been having a blip about blogging. Writing a weekly post, however enjoyable and stimulating, threatens to scupper Novel 4 as it did Novel 3 . I mentioned this and Rebecca commented: “Yes, blogging uses a lot of psychic energy.” Psychic energy! That’s why I’m limiting the length of these posts henceforth. Psychic energy is just what Novel 4 needs. That was her first tip. Her second, about endings, unleashed mine.

I hadn’t known how Novel 4 would finish, until then. Ultimately I may make the end that revealed itself to me on the course a late climactic point and dream up an even more spectacular ending, but for now it gives me a destination. For an author daunted by planning, this was such a supportive gift. Thank you, Rebecca and volunteer hosts; thank you, other course participants, for your comments and thank you to those who read your  work – images of waves at sea stay with me in particular. I wish you all good luck, and many gentle readers.

(Here originally endeth this post. But by pure coincidence I’ve see the daughter of an ex teaching colleague has just published a Graphic Revision guide to Pride and Prejudice. So now it endeth with a plug for that. Who knew you could graphically revise JA?)

 

 

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©Jessica Norrie 2018

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Hay ho, Hay ho, it’s off to words we go…

Despite not being all that bloggered about posting at the moment, I couldn’t miss the chance for the puns Hay Festival makes possible. Friends nearby had often said: Hay, why don’t you come along? I only went for Tuesday, not the full ten days, and my introduction is more pictures than words, but I hope you catch my Hay fever. This year I was checking out how it all worked, and could only get tickets for one of the three writers I’d have liked to see. Rose Tremain obliged, but Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood were sold out long before I got my act together. So we only went to one formal activity, but there was much else to entertain us.

Hay-on-Wye itself, permanent population only 1500, has over two dozen bookshops, down from its Hayday but still impressive. Some are now antique shops, and I also diverted into several stylish new and secondhand clothes shops, a  café for Hereford apple cake and an outdoor food market for falafel salad washed down by (strong!) local cider. All accompanied by the classiest of classical guitar buskers…

A town with a bookshop for every 62.5 people is my kind of town. We especially enjoyed  Rose’s Books, where we pounced with delight on affectionately remembered – and long forgotten – gems from our childhoods and giggled over what our grandparents used to read. Remember the Chalet School Girls? Rose has them, along with every Ladybird book you could think of, Rupert and Tin-Tin, William and Jennings, Victorian morality tales, sixties psychedelic picture books and Puffins flying everywhere. Murder and Mayhem, a branch of Addyman‘s, offers a sleuth’s day out, and Richard Booth‘s famous shop includes a cinema.

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After browsing, tasting and trying we walked the half mile to the Festival site. There’s a shuttle bus, but then you’d miss the haphazard, inventive enterprise of people who live along the route. Almost every front garden had been turned into a miniature car boot sale, a home-made food stall, a face painter, portrait artist, vintage clothing pop up rail or a purveyor of free range eggs complete with clucking hens to prove the provenance. It was (or seemed) anarchic and I can’t imagine the authorities allowing it in London, but good for these citizens. I hope they made Hay.

The festival site, guarded by two jovial armed police (in honour of Chelsea Clinton perhaps? Surely not still for Salman Rushdie?)  was crowded with all ages but fewer races than I’d have liked to see. First things first: the portaloos, with real wooden doors, were the best I’ve seen at an outdoor festival. The bookshop and signing centre, in a vast tent, was humid and uncomfortable with criss-crossing queues, so I left and found more clothes shops selling natural fabrics and one-off designs. There’s also jewellery, cider, wine, cheese…it’s fair to say this is not exclusively a book festival. The best tent was a gallery of book illustrators’ prints, with Jackie Morris painting away to demonstrate her technique while discussing her work, including her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane on The Lost Words. I didn’t explore the scribblers’ tent, the Oxfam tent or the many activities for children – I’m sure I missed a lot.

Hay illustrators exhib
The book illustrators’ gallery

But one can only digest so much and we had come for Rose Tremain. She was talking in the vast, impersonal Tata area about her memoir of damaged childhood, Scenes from a Vanished Life. Goodness, this was brave. Obviously, she’s a professional, clearly she knew what she’d written and the questions she would be asked. Nonetheless, this must have been like having therapy in front of thousands of people. She was clear, succinct, careful to say exactly what she meant, and the cold calmness of her delivery made the content all the more moving. As she said, her book started as a personal memoir for family and friends only. But when she perceived how emotionally they reacted, she realised she’d stepped into a novelist’s dream. “It’s every writer’s ambition to move people, and I’d moved them so much I had to widen the book out.” I’d been regretting not also booking to see Maggie O’Farrell earlier that day, talking about the seventeen ways she’s escaped death, but I’m not sure I could have coped with the intensity of both. A little goes a long Hay…

Anyway, here are the holiday snaps. I suspect Hay is a very personal experience which affects everyone a different way. I’ll certainly go back for more next year – and perhaps also when the festival is not on, just to enjoy the town and and the beautiful country around it. Because even the car park was scenic and I could harvest the most multicoloured silk scarf in the world, from the shop opposite the alleyway from the castle…

Hay fairtrde shop - Copy

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Finding the write excuse

Some weeks the writing ideas zoom in like fat bees in lavender. Other times someone must have sprayed pesticides. There’s no hope for the novel, short shrift for short stories, and even the blog gets bogged down. That’s serious, because the blog’s raison d’être is to unblock the serious writer in me (though all too often it replaces her entirely).

When I taught French to adults, I would excuse uncompleted homework if they could provide a correctly formulated excuse, eg: “Le chien a mangé mes devoirs.”

How do you rate my excuses?

  1. Last week’s post was too good! Yes, that’s right, I was very pleased with my blog post last week. I admired both my own writing style, and my choice of content. My chest puffed out; I smiled graciously;  I stood behind an imaginary lectern spouting wisdom to an enthralled audience. I’ve made myself a hard act to follow.
  2. The weather. Tax 5Seriously. My study is the coldest room in the house. The UK climate was playing cruel homage to Antonia White’s wonderful Frost in May. No bees buzzed. I cowered beneath blankets gazing mournfully out at my dying cherry tree. When it’s cold in winter I can write. When it’s cold in spring my pen shrivels (Can pens shrivel? – Ed.)
  3. I have a busy month coming up. Trips planned, student reunions, family things, cultural highlights. I take packing for these very seriously, and had to put aside a lot of time for inventing obstacles to worry about.
  4. My reading has stalled, so I can’t give a review for this week’s post. I’m currently 4682558in the middle of two books: Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King in preparation for a trip to Milan, and The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which my son gave me for my birthday. They’re both very good, but as a Goodreads review says, “whenever i read books written in dialect it always takes me at least 40 pages to start to get the hang of it”. As a (highly appropriate and skilfully used) vehicle for intensity, cruelty, and injustice the voice isn’t always easy to process. And why are both printed in such an exhaustingly tiny font? When my reading staggers my writing stumbles too.
  5. I did my tax return. This is grounds for congratulation – I’ve never completed it soTax 8 promptly before. It didn’t take long, because to be frank the piles of receipts and associated expenditure on my authorial life are not that high. (The million pound advance for The Magic Carpet must be lost in the post.) So given the level of turnover, can I really describe myself to the Inland Revenue as a writer? On the other hand, bearing in mind recent estimates of average author income, do my low earnings provide the proof?
  6. Amazon returned the interior proofs for the German translation of The Infinity PoolI can be of absolutely no help checking these, but there was a lot of associated emailing with my long suffering, hard working, optimistic German translator Michaela and I do so hope for her sake even more than mine that her hard work finds some appreciative readers and reviewers.
  7. My writing ideas are unrepeatable. A couple of plot ideas did surface recently as a result of memories friends recounted to me, in that innocent way they have over a glass of wine after a concert, unaware their writer friend is salting it all away for use in chapter six. But in the cold light of day I’ve realised what a betrayal it would be to use them.
  8. I had to cultivate my garden, not in the Voltairean sense but literally. I’d bought some plants before the most recent mini ice age intervened and urgent life saving was needed.
  9. There are cracks in the living room plaster that could mean anything and have to be watched. tax cracks
  10. Le chien a mangé mes devoirs. Je n’ai pas de chien.
  11. The idea I do have is reserved for Smorgasbord in a couple of weeks.
  12. Just realised I wrote this post or one very like it shortly after starting blogging, and also the following New Year. More proof I’m a professional writer – glossy magazines have been recycling the same articles for decades.

If you’re still with me through all these excuses, take my advice: you must – like me – have better things to do. Like I said, last week’s post was good. Why not revisit that?

Jessica Norrie ©2018

A funny thing happened on the way to the story

People have told stories since once upon a time. We know that from prehistoric cave paintings and sculpture. There may have been stories before there were words – through body language, perhaps. We know all societies create some form of music and that stories were told through music before they were written down. Homer’s epics (if Homer existed) were told to a musical accompaniment, for instance.

We tell stories to tiny children to comfort, entertain, process and explain (those who don’t, should). As adults, we call news scoops “big stories” and those who can afford it tell therapists our stories, retelling and reframing until with help from the therapist we arrive at the kernel within. More universally and informally, women recount what matters to them to their friends, and in healthy societies men do too. Was there ever anything less healthy than the requirement for British men to keep a stiff upper lip?

storytelling 2

In the days when there was more to training teachers than phonics and test scores, I was in an audience of education professionals addressed by Dr Richard Stone, a member of the MacPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. His anger simmered, as he recounted policing failures after this innocent young black man’s life ended so violently at a London bus stop. But his delivery was controlled, starting something like this: Let me tell you a story. Humans need stories. By sharing what happened in story form, we can make sense and learn from it. At times during his two hour talk, he stopped, silenced by the horror of what he had to say, and then with a deep breath, would repeat like a mantra: back to the story; humans need stories. He was a good public speaker so the repetition reassured us, and every now and then he threw in a witticism, to relax us with a relieved burst of laughter. That fortified us for the next onslaught. Because he told us the facts in story form, they’re still in my memory after eighteen years.

Youth murders in London have increased since then. Few get Stephen Lawrence’s column inches and anniversary documentaries. Little Damilola Taylor, 10 years old, was one who did, and Stephen Kelman based his funny, tragic book Pigeon English around a similar story. Other difficult situations lead us to storytelling too: Mary Smith cared for her father with dementia and fashions elegant, moving, funny anecdotes from what must have been painful experiences on her blog, My Dad is a Goldfish. It’s not uncommon for people suffering from mental ill health or illnesses such as anorexia, alcoholism or cancer to turn to blogging their experiences, and almost always they manage to turn them into self contained episodes – I am continually amazed by the skill of human beings to craft misfortune into stories we can all learn from and in a peculiar (cathartic?) way, enjoy. Memoir writing courses are increasingly popular: in today’s weeping world, do we need stories even more?

 

Scheherazade told stories to save her life, but it doesn’t happen only in fiction. This 1941 article, still astonishing now, tells of theatre, cabarets and even comedy performed by Jewish inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald.

The extremely daring Compère…introduced the show as follows:

“My friends, you are lucky to be here this afternoon. Here, in Buchenwald, we have the best art and the best artists in the whole of Germany. Here you can actually laugh out loud at our jokes. Here is the freest theatre in the Reich. In the theatres outside, the actors and the audience are frightened because they fear that they may end up in a concentration camp. That’s something we don’t have to worry about.”

storytelling 1

Professionals and amateurs often use the episodic story form to make sense of tragedy: an example in mainstream media was Rebecca Armstrong‘s four year series about life after her husband’s serious car accident. Comedians can wring laughs and, crucially, empathy, from the darkest situations: Lou Conran made a stand up show from her experience of giving birth to a stillborn baby. “The upsetting bits are cushioned” she says, by the comedy. Conran “got hundreds of messages from people thanking me, sharing their stories. One lady in her 60s had told her adult children [about her own similar experience] and grieved for the first time.”  The Daily Annagram is a lacerating, hilarious, VERY sweary blog by a stand up comedian and writer called Anna. It’s mostly about the mess she and others have made of her life, and the way she pummels each fresh punchball of pain into anecdote is a master class in storytelling as survival skill. You cannot but wish her well.

Last week I was lucky enough to see comedian Mark Thomas with Palestinian colleagues in Showtime from the Frontline at Stratford Theatre Royal, London. Thomas and his colleague Sam Beale who teaches comedy impro ran a comedy workshop in the refugee city of Jenin, Palestine. Participants ranged from complete beginners to professional actors (“My dad insisted: Son, I want you to be a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor or a scientist!” “Dad,” I answered, “If I become an actor I can be all of those!” HIGNFY and Mock the Week please note: the class managed a better gender balance than you do, yes, in Palestine.) The compère at the graduation show was “the most depressed man in Palestine”; the Palestinian-Israeli founder of the theatre hosting the workshop had been murdered; most course participants had no chance of touring the UK with Thomas and their classmates. The audience fell spontaneously silent for a young man seen on video talking about how he’d like to play Romeo – but he was fatally shot before he could do so. You’d not think it promising ground for laughs…

…so of course the humour contained bleak moments. But comedy conventions like three elements (first element sets up a situation; second element reinforces/develops it; third element subverts it), clownish expressions and timing that held the audience in a trance made it first side splitting, then shocking, moving, funny again. An irony: it was similar to so much Jewish humour I have heard all my life, and indeed to humour from all over the world. At the post show discussion Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said : “You know, you Brits, you laugh at the same things we do, just in a quieter way.” Comedy is universal, even if we all have individual preferences. Asked about comedy in Palestine, Faisal said, “You know, we do not so much have a comedy tradition. But we have a very strong storytelling tradition, stronger than yours. And many of those stories have many funny bits inside.”

So let’s keep telling those stories. Some of us are bestselling professionals (a story I tell myself); some of us are just starting out, and some of us are still listening on our mother’s knees (I hope). But we are a storytelling species and if we can keep the storytelling going we may have a happy ending.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

A prescription for blocked writers

I’d written my Work In Progress into a dark, locked cellar. It was time for something to stimulate and inspire. My budget precludes a long writing course, and I don’t like online learning. But since 2014 I’d had positive experiences at a Guardian Masterclass with William Ryan, a summer workshop with Marina Warner, and a Spread the Word mentoring session. So I booked “Building Stories” with London Lit Lab. The course aimed to “use the experience of our public and private spaces to inspire evocative fiction.” At the very least I’d have the privilege of working in two of London’s most impressive buildings. At best I’d start writing my way back upstairs.

Attendees included published and unpublished writers, academics, artists and therapists hoping to write fiction or poetry, and our tutors were Zoe Gilbert (Folk) and Lily Dunn.

Riba hall
RIBA, 1st floor landing, with busy participants

Our Saturday setting was the Royal Institute of British Architects, designed by George Grey Wornum, with interiors by his wife Miriam. Light from huge windows and etched glass doors floods the gleaming floors and emphatic angled spaces. Why architects would need a ballroom isn’t obvious, but they have one here to suit the most demanding Cinderella, with a grand staircase for her glass slipper to trip down and curved sofas inviting assignations. The library was modelled on a cruise liner and the soundproofed council chamber had a throne. In our conference room, originally white leather walls had turned uncleanably yellow from the smoke of a thousand meetings. We creaked across sprung floors and hauled ourselves up from the public space to narrower private staircases. Then we jotted our sensory impressions in short unpolished phrases, some of which we shared, anonymously.

An architect helped us study plans from the RIBA archives, including homes, schools, a debtor’s prison, a pheasantry, and an exhibition space. Our new understanding transformed them from codified diagrams to pictures in the mind’s eye. Stories unfolded.

Next, we were to imagine a building used other than for its original purpose. Writing an activity that didn’t fit the space would subvert it, creating tension. A derelict house, bereft of domesticity, is sinister. A church converted to flats must be deconsecrated. When a psychiatric hospital becomes a gated estate of private homes is it more or less of a refuge for the residents? Tube stations in the Blitz with people sleeping on the platforms, stables for cars instead of warm, living horses, ice hotels, the ruined swimming pool where Djokovic practised tennis as a boy. Map the mismatch, said Zoe and Lily. We scribbled away under the nicotine walls. I found myself immersed in a semi-serious idea from years ago, clamouring to be used. It had come to the fore because repurposing a building activates parts of the brain we don’t often use.

After lunch we discussed the psychology of spaces. How conversations run depends whether we’re sitting in a cafe or on a roller coaster. The rooms we’ve lived in are repositories for dreams, thoughts, conversations we’ve had in them (think of Proust). I was reminded how unsettled my father’s house seemed, when he was in hospital and I was popping in to pick things up. Something intangible had left with him, as though the house already knew he would never return… In the deadly quiet of the soundproofed council chamber we read of a Kate Chopin heroine in her hallway and her bedroom, her emotions and expectations adapting to each. The more private space meant she could explore her own secrets, have her epiphany and the story could move on.

We imagined someone with a secret, in a place where they feel safe. What happens? Zoe had postcard portraits, for anyone without such a character in mind already. Hooray! One was Protagonist J, in my stalled WIP. Now I know what he looks like! I described his safe space, nothing like the cold flat air of the council chamber but encouraged into existence there. Then I threatened it.

For a final Point of View, we were given a secret character – mine was a woman with a migraine – and had to write her POV on entering RIBA that morning. Could the others guess her traits from our narrative? It was an elegant way to end the day by referring to how far we’d come since we met.

BL seen on a staircase
British Library foyer, showing “The Tapestry”, from a Kitaj painting with the same name.

The British Library was a contrast on Sunday, our home turf a colourless basement “learning room” with an enormous expanse of white table, and no natural light (but better than my cellar). In groups we tried Erasure poetry, extracting evocative words and phrases from existing work(s), erasing or juxtaposing them to “write” something new. I was tired so on this occasion it didn’t do much for me, but others were immersed and stimulated, creating new poems together on huge sheets of paper. (My Erasure on that sentence might be: It did       for me,      creating    on     huge sheets. ) I thought of Rachel Whiteread’s blank windowed buildings, and of my favourite sentence from Reservoir 13: “There was weather”. So often, silent spaces are as important as what’s there.

Riba writing in council chamber
Council chamber, RIBA
BL room
Our learning room at the BL

We wandered the British Library, making notes for a story about some aspect of the building, or an object housed there. Touch, memories, smells: not only visuals. We drew mind maps of our journey, and of imaginary places in the invisible, non public parts of buildings. This time the huge sheets did work for me, my notes proving fertile fodder later.

BL underground
Who knows what’s in the invisible spaces of our public buildings?

In the afternoon with much shushing and confiscation of pens, we wrote in the Reading Room, normally closed on Sundays. (Pencils only, for fear of marking valuable books.) This room exuded concentration, and we all wrote for forty minutes in palpable silence like brocade drapes muffling us from distraction. (Bit overwrought – Ed.)

BL lightswitch
We stood back for the bigger picture and homed in in the details

Lastly, we discussed editing, considering two versions of a Raymond Carver story. A useful, practical discussion, ending with wine and some shared readings of our stories, before I dived even further underground for the tube home.

Thank you to Zoe, Lily and colleagues for a constructive and enjoyable weekend. For me, the tendency to focus on more literary fiction was especially welcome. These courses don’t end with the final well earned glass of wine, but give participants ideas to draw on for years to come. I enjoyed taking the writing medecine so much, I’ve treated myself to a day at Chawton too. I’m on my way back upstairs!

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©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

Patience rewarded in “Reservoir 13”

I do like a book that shatters the rule bound splodge of too much current creative writing advice. I especially like it when it’s by a Professor of Creative Writing (at Nottingham University, where the course doesn’t sound splodgy at all).

The professor is Jon McGregor, whose If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002) I admired in my post on beautiful writing. You must devote time and space to his books, so I waited until nearly a year after publication to read Reservoir 1333283659

The Goodreads reviewer who wrote: “Lovely descriptions of nature are insufficient compensation for an uneventful plot and a slew of forgettable characters” missed the point. There’s a whole village worth of plots, the stories of many families and their members. A creative writing mantra broken: multiple characters, no clear main protagonist. But what’s to stop the reader following and embroidering those that interest her most? Or you could tease out each plot strand horizontally.

Jessica in peak district 1984
Hills above Sheffield, 1982

I may have been especially drawn in because I once lived on the edge of the Peak District, so nostalgia was an added factor. In descriptive prose like painted brushstrokes, at least sixty familiar seeming  individuals move to the foreground, retreat, are glimpsed in the distance, pass by as we’re engaged with someone else, disappear… Nature is a character too, or several: the badgers who thrive as the book progresses, the vulnerable foxes, the endangered butterflies. Man-made structures take on personality: the locked butcher shop still with chopping boards and knives used by generations of the same family; the footbridge that may collapse or hold in times of flood; the school boiler room where distasteful things occur (or do they?), and even the boiler itself. It’s all enmeshed. (Les Thompson) nodded when people spoke to him, and his handshakes were heavy and warm. The snowdrops were up and the crows flew overhead and the wind moved through the trees. Jane had to keep herself from smiling.

The hook goes behind the clouds, so the reader must find their own motivation. After two chapters, I asked my partner: Does it continue like this right through? Yes, he said, it does, and once I knew that, it was comfortable to ride with it rather than await something different. The book starts with a disturbing incident. A teenage girl has disappeared in the countryside around the Peak District village and reservoirs where her parents have a holiday let. Cue the blurb of every other book on Waterstone’s front table. I yawned. Abducted child, missing girl, sinister holiday… If I’d submitted this – in my dreams! – the editors would have said, “I already have something similar on my list”.

Peak District 1982 by Steve
Cooper explained there had once been villages down there, that all the reservoirs had been made by flooding the valleys. They looked at him, waiting to see if he was joking. The world didn’t always sound right when it was first explained.” Ladybower reservoir, near Sheffield, 1983

The villagers turn out to search and we hear snippets of their interweaving stories, garnished with the local flora and fauna and changing with the seasons. In the conifers above Reservoir no 5, a buzzard sat warmly on her eggs while the wind pulled through the trees. The narrator goes inside the villagers’ heads and informs us of their back stories, up to a point. Then we’re free to fill in from our own imaginations, should we wish to. The occasional dialogue is embedded, unsignalled by speech marks, within long paragraphs echoing previous paragraphs. POVs swing back and forth. Goodness knows how many rules that breaks. The Show-not-tellers must have hit the tequila by now.

Martin, she said. This has to stop now. I’m not here to be won back. He was shaking his head. I’m telling you, he said, I didn’t send that. There was a softening in his expression. He felt as if he had the upper hand for once. She looked at him and she didn’t know what to believe.

The tequila drinkers had better buy another bottle because so many passages like those above contain words from the list often banned to creative writers. There were/there was/he felt/it seemed/they looked/she understood/he said/they went… Too much distance between the reader and characters, swig, glug. But to me, stretched on my sofa in the muffled quiet of last week’s snow, the banned words provided space to consider setting and characters. Such writing gives time to digest. There was something of the prison yard about him. Paradoxically, understatement goes a long way; space and silence provide proportion. There was weather, and branches from the allotment sycamores flew onto the roof of the Tucker house. I nearly overstated my case by putting the simplest opening clause ever in bold print. Peak disrict

The ragged robin was still in flower, but this isn’t some idyllic dreamtime: farmers can’t sustain a livelihood; arson, theft and alcohol are problems. There’s domestic violence and mental illness among the wheatsheaves and elderflower cordial. The place had been empty now for seven years. There was a dispute to be settled before it could be sold, but no-one seemed to know what it was or who might be involved. Jones went up a ladder and took the branches down.

I was lost in details of lambing and growing courgettes and barely aware of the Show-and-tellers slumped by the empty tequila crate. Already assaulted by banned words, they’d now been subjected to a deluge of passive voice. At the school the lights were seen on early…. The decision was made to pack up…At the heronry the nests were rebuilt.

So there are no cliffhangers, no five or three act structure, no thwarted will or protagonist struggling desperately through an apparently unsurvivable crisis! Yet several stories are told. Each chapter covers a year. The first sentence mentions New Year fireworks; then there’s Shrove Tuesday and the May well dressing (now I understand this local craft, thank you, Professor McGregor). The chapter ends with carol singing and life goes on: births, marriages, divorces, deaths. The narrative weaves through time at the same tempo. Time, calendar events, weather are the stationary, longitudinal warp threads; the characters are the weft, drawn through and inserted over-and-under them, to be kept even or the fabric wouldn’t hold together. I rooted for some, disliked the randy farmer, hoped the wild twins would calm down and longed to lift the spliffs from teenage lips. (You can forget deep POV: the narrator tells us exactly what their parents don’t know they’re doing in that car, in a sympathetic depiction of teenage friendships, uncertainties and mistakes).5172rqnad5l-_sx347_bo1204203200_And what of the missing girl, and the thirteenth reservoir? You’d have to read the book to find out, but you may become more interested in those left behind. For more books set in villages, see the Guardian article by Xan Brooks here.

Anyway, hurray for the rule breaker. This is a wonderful book. When he finished, I hope McGregor broke the mould: the last thing we need is a slew of formulaic imitations.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

You say what you have to say; it takes as long as it takes.

Sometimes a high quality experience crops up unexpectedly to enhance my life. One afternoon last week, when I was wasting time or so I thought on Facebook, up popped an advert. Julian Barnes would be in conversation with Hermione Lee, starting in four hours.

(Lucky me, to live in London and be free at short notice, with £11.50 to spare for a ticket plus the fare into Piccadilly. This is the sort of event many writers and would be writers are not able to attend. See Kit de Waal on the subject, here.)

I’ve always admired Julian Barnes’ writing. It was inspiring to see him in the flesh. Tall, spare, sardonic, dignified. He can do a lot with one raised eyebrow or a glance along his nose (not down his nose, I think). The hour began with Barnes reading from The Only Story, published on 1st February. (A similar reading is available here.) I’d read the first pages before the talk, and if I’m honest been underwhelmed by comparison with the opening to his last book, The Noise of Time. Now here were the necessary cadences to bring the prose alive, a helpful oral guide to approaching the text.

 

I’ve not been to many such events. I once saw Fay Weldon taking questions after a play at the Rosemary Branch in Islington. She was rumbustious, hearty and undeterred by whatever was thrown at her but I remember little of what she said.Then, not long before she died, I saw Doris Lessing take sole command of the wide National Theatre stage, unexpectedly elegiac and mild, reflecting with conviction and humour on a life interestingly lived. The Barnes event was more elegant, in the pretty little lecture theatre of the Royal Institution. It seemed more scripted, fittingly for Barnes who famously considers his choice of words so carefully and takes Flaubert as a model. There were no questions. Professor Hermione Lee has worked extensively with Barnes before. Even so, some of the observations she made took bravery, as this patrician man makes it clear when he doesn’t agree. His joke about a young man who for some reason had to walk out mid talk caused laughter that must have rung loud in the embarrassed departing ears.

Barnes lecture 1
Before the event

The Only Story is about love going right and love going wrong. The epigraph is Dr Johnson’s definition in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. “A novel: a small tale, normally of love.” The beginning poses the question: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less?” As Barnes said “The first love becomes a template for all subsequent loves – either as what not to do, or as an ideal.”

Barnes spoke of memory, age, time, and autobiography in his fiction. Memory becomes less reliable as you age, more dependent on the imagination. He can’t use his own memories in his writing for at least five or six years after the event; they have to undergo some sort of internal process first, which he likened to composting. Some memories beg to be used in fiction, but the writer must shoehorn them in carefully or they’ll jar. He asks academics who study his books to alert him if he’s used an anecdote before.

Barnes lecture 7

He thought (though didn’t specifically advise) younger writers need to write chronologically at first, within a short time frame, or much of their narrative can only be guesswork. The writer over seventy has the privileged capacity to handle extended time periods. But, although Barnes often sets his fiction in the “neutral” suburbia of his youth, and prefers to write about inner emotions, the reader shouldn’t assume everything is autobiographical. A reader of The Only Story had cast him as the hero, and written: “I didn’t know you had two hip replacements!” His reply, eyebrow raised, sardonic smile: “One can make things up, you know. This is fiction.”

Many in the audience nodded vigorously at the points he made, but they were mostly much younger. Some took frantic notes and others were recording Barnes on their phones – was I mistaken or was he not wholly pleased? If they were creative writing students looking for specific recipes for planning novels, his answers were slippery but amusing. I think I’ve deciphered these quotes correctly from my jottings on the Evening Standard in the tube – I was less well equipped than the creative writing students and wanted simply to listen.

Lee: Why are your books so short?

Barnes: (purses lips, picks up book and leafs through): 213 pages? Then he quoted a favourite of his, the French writer Jules Renard who in a journal of some 1000 pages said: “All novels are too long”.

Lee: Well, I mean, “compressed”, then.

Barnes: Well, you say what you have to say, and it takes as long as it takes.

(Although I wondered if some of his writing is “compressed” because he’s been honing his craft for so long he now needs fewer words to express what he means.)

45369He sidestepped a question about planning with an anecdote about his friend Michèle Roberts and how she develops a novel. For his part, he strolls about until ideas come (“mooching and mulching”.) But he did discuss taking care with “balance”. For example, in Arthur and George, Arthur (Conan Doyle) could have become weighted down with research material whereas George ( a young man he championed in a court case) had only an ephemeral presence in the archives. It was a challenge not to reflect this contrast in how the text showed the characters.

Lee asked how he felt about the use of his name as an adjective “Barnesian”. He said he didn’t know what it meant, partly because he doesn’t read reviews. He doesn’t object to “Dickensian” or “Larkinesque” but wouldn’t want to explore such an interpretation of his own work because it might make his writing “self conscious and limited”. Then she approached writing in the first, second or third person, but again Barnes signposted books other than his own. All I can tell you is Julian Barnes recommends Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney as the best example of second person narration he knows. Here’s The Only Story‘s narrator (possibly a mouthpiece for JB, more probably not) on settings: “The time, the place, the social milieu. I’m not sure how important they are, in stories about love…and one other thing: don’t ask me about the weather.

Barnes lecture 4If I am making Barnes sound ungenerous or exclusive, I don’t mean to. He must enjoy talking about his work because there are several interviews available online for anyone not lucky enough to be able to attend such events. But his presentation finds a subtle, precise middle ground between publicity and dignity – much like his writing style – not giving too much away, tickling the audience’s interest, retaining his own privacy. Diffidence, form, subtlety are underrated in our screeching age, and this compressed event was perfect in its understatement.

There’s been much recent discussion of diversity in publishing. Here was a white, middle class, able bodied (the hips, anyway) European male in amusing conversation, before a mainly white audience of (presumably) Londoners. No barricades will be stormed by audiences attending events like this. Yet the decorous dialogue between two establishment figures reflected the style, wit, poignancy and insight into the human condition of Barnes’ writing, with lessons for all. I enjoyed it immensely.

©Jessica Norrie 2018