On packing for a novel

Although I love trips away and I’ve chosen to be a writer, packing a case and planning a novel both fill me with dread. But I’m not one to waste a good analogy.

I don’t know what to include. I’m worried I may end up marooned without something crucial, or humping around a dead weight of miscellaneous junk. Will my choices complement each other, or will they be out of place and pointless? What mood will I be in – light, careless, stressed, excited, energetic?
hat-and-umbrellaWill I stride up mountains and pen epic passages? If so I’d better take my strongest boots and most heroic thoughts. Or will I get stuck at some bureaucratic roadblock, with no way through from one chapter to the next without endless examination of my narrator’s identity and reasons for passing through? Will my inner critic let me vault such hurdles, only to shrug her shoulders and say, I’m lost?

For realism and to set the scene, a writer can note the climate. But how will the weather behave? Will my characters and I need rain coats or diaphanous gowns? How will I fare when the pests of the air sting on the long itchy nights / typos adn infelicities infest my exiled prose? I can pack mosquito repellent but I can’t pack my editor.

Who and where are my secondary characters? Will they just happen along, or have I planned to meet them? It’s the author’s privilege to ditch the Brexit bores, if that’s who the company turns out to be, but they can be tenacious chaps who hang around dulling my polished prose. A good guide book may help me avoid them, so in it goes.

How quickly will time pass? Do I need books, sketching materials, puzzles – aka subplots, illustrations, and red herrings? Or will my trip and my story be entertaining enough alone? Would such distractions impede or embellish?

I dither and wander and find displacement activities. Make a trifle, sand the kitchen counter, catch up with the book reviews I promised months ago. Anything but commit to what is going in that case/novel. (Tracy Chevalier describes this well in the Guardian.) In the end I wildly throw everything, essential or not, on the bed. I hurl more on top, chuck it out, bung it in again.. It’s a depressing muddle that will never fit and I sleep in the spare room that night.

Anyway, what case? I forgot I’d thrown it out as it was splitting. Ditto what flight bag? What about those transparent moments when everyone can see my intimate creams and ointments as I go through security? Am I writing a novel at all, or is the idea just too leaky and revealing? Would it be wiser not even to embark ?

hand-baggage-1

Departure day arrives. I must commit. I have a list on the computer, some of it out of date (cassette tapes? Trainer cups?) Likewise there’s a list of requirements for a novel: genre, characters (all grown ups now), setting, inciting incidents, five acts, themes, and – when I can finally leave the house – resolution. Nothing must be left behind.

At the airport I’m anxious and buy more paracetamol, forgetting I already have enough to kill off a whole series of victims.

Let’s cut to the last day of the trip/the end of my current writing journey. I’m pleased! I vow to visit again, spending more time in one place, paying more careful attention. I’ve acquired so much I have to force the case shut and buy a strong strap to keep everything together. The paraphernalia I added early in my stay are still protected by tissue wrappings: I’ve forgotten what these items are and they’ll take me by surprise when I unpack back home. Most are no good: what I thought an ideal Christmas present is actually tacky; that poignant incident I wrote the night we drank cocktails is schmaltz. The volatile scene created on the flight out will work, with some of the turbulence tamed; but the meandering chapter of the thirty-two hour Friday you live through when you get on a plane at midday in Tokyo and disembark at 3pm in London is too long and tired.There’s dirty washing to be done and careless prose to clean up and the only thing that will help is a cup of tea that tastes of home. My analogy has been baggage handled to breaking point, but souvenirs survive: a fine wine, a garment of exquisite comfort to be worn until it falls apart, photographs of beautiful, strange people and places. Enough to frame the rest of the story. Welcome to the start of making sense.

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© Jessica Norrie 2016

Has anyone seen my glasses?

On a creative writing course that I describe here, we were asked to write about a precious object, a talisman. Some people chose jewellery  – one had a wonderful wedding ring, full of mystery, that she’d bought (they’d bought) on eBay! But my Talisman is my glasses.

tartan galsses

I have worn glasses since I was 16. At first I tried to avoid them, shamefacedly extracting them from my bag to check the bus number as it approached the stop. Later I had to put them on more, and now almost all the time. Instinctively, I usually remove them when eating. And also since getting an electric toothbrush, as I spatter them with Colgate, and I’m not the sort of person who can ever lay their hands on any of that special lens cleaner that organised spectacleers have.

Without my glasses my world would be less and yet over the years I have made my glasses less too. My statement style shouted “Here I Am!” in the 1980s: I had stripy frames and bright pink frames and lenses like the dog with waterwheel eyes in the Hans Anderson fairy tale. But now they’re inconspicuous. I don’t want to feel them on my nose ridging the skin red and sore; I don’t want them hiding my eye colour, my lashes (which due to the side effects of some medication are growing! Bat, flutter, bat flutter – a bit grotesque but funny too.) I want my expression to be visible. No dissimulation nowadays, no false confidence. What YOU see is what you get.mumand ros with glassesMy all singing, all dancing varifocal’d shatter proof surface protected lightweight tinted lenses darken in the sun, which is when my expression does become impenetrable. A school child told me my dark glasses make me look like a detective and I like that, for they do enable me to see what’s afoot. Add a trench coat and a pipe and I’d be set to go.

peacock glasses 2In our house we don’t shout goodbye when we leave for work or study in the morning. Instead the last I hear from my “children” (they are so grown-up and so much taller than I am) is: “Your glasses are on the piano / your glasses are in the bathroom,” or simply: “Fruit bowl!” If they don’t call I am lost, for without my glasses on I cannot find my glasses. Now, oddly, I can find no photos of me wearing them with which to illustrate this post. Perhaps I’m as vain as this peacock.

Two years ago I was diagnosed with glaucoma in both eyes at exactly the same age as my mother before me. She went blind. Treatments have moved on and I shall probably not go blind (although at the rate my eyelashes are going they may soon screen the world) but it was a sign of ageing, a pointer to depression and suddenly I became aware of how sight based my day is. I wake and look around the messy room in dismay; I read a book; I browse my bloody phone; I read my emails; I wander to the shops (or drive); inspect the garden, and if the gods of fate are on my side I write some prose using a screen. How without sight will I find new ways to see?

Fruit bowl with glasses

Harry Potter and the Athenian Quest

My children were the same age, more or less, as Harry Potter, and grew up with him, their interests and concerns maturing alongside his. It was Harry Potter who got my son Robert – for years more into cartoons and articles about football – to grips with reading long, unillustrated texts, paving the way for Philip Reeve and Philip Pullman later on.

Harry P books 1-6

In 2007, Robert and I went away, to join a group, none of whom we knew yet, on an activity holiday with plenty to offer both of us. I never went on holiday without lots of reading matter, and took what I thought were “good” books along for him as well, but without much hope that he’d read them. In pre Kindle days it was a heavy, bulky labour of love.

Rob seemed sad in the days before we left. He liked the holiday idea, but was upset because the final Harry Potter book was due out the day after we were to leave. When he returned all his friends would have read it, and he anticipated having to hide himself away until he’d finished it too, or they’d tell him what had happened. Rumour had it this was going to be a thick book, so he’d be hidden away a long time. Even if he avoided  friends and the media, how would we stop his sister spilling the Bertie Bott’s every flavour beans?

There was no way to get it before we left. Bookshops had strict confidentiality agreements, stocks were locked up at secret locations, copies couldn’t be pre-ordered for dispatch to a remote Greek island, reachable only by several coaches and two ferry trips after flying to Athens. Rob was philosophical, but by taking us out of the UK on such an occasion, I had blundered, and I felt guilty. He packed the other books in silent, dreary politeness.

At Heathrow there was the usual dull hanging about after check in. HP bpopks 1-6Harry Potter posters popped up everywhere. News on the terminal monitors showed children and adults queuing up outside bookshops due to open at midnight, being interviewed about how excited they were. The airport shop windows were swathed in paper, ready for a grand unveiling – just after our plane was due to leave. You could buy the other six – but those we’d read already.

A delay was announced. Hope glimmered: we might be able to buy a copy. But we were called to the departure lounge. There we sat, bored and frustrated, in no man’s land, away from the bright lights of the shopping concourse, but not airborne yet either. My son grew quieter and quieter. I felt more and more guilty.

The plane was called, over five hours late. We arrived in Athens, trailed miserably through customs and got to our hotel as dawn was breaking. There was to be a late morning ferry from Piraeus, and the tour operators postponed breakfast so we could get an hour of sleep in the rooms we’d paid for and expected to use all night. Rob crashed out straight away, jaded and fed up. It was very, very hot.

I thought hard. My father had been a bookseller, and I knew about big events in the publishing world. Here we were in a European capital – there had to be a bookshop somewhere eager to conjure euro treasure from a pile of pristine Harry Potters. Leaving Rob asleep, I went to try and find one.

After my sleepless night, my eyes felt gritty and my tummy wasn’t quite behaving. I had rather a large sum of cash on me that I should really have left in the bedroom safe but I was too exhausted to think straight. I wandered away from the hotel, whose name I instantly forgot. After one block I realised all the street names were written in the Greek alphabet and I’d have no idea how to get back unless I noted some landmarks. Ah – SEX SHOP! screamed huge red readable capitals on the corner. That would have to do. I was just off Syntagma Square, but I’d never been to Athens before and didn’t realise. I’d left my 13  year old son sleeping, oblivious to my absence in a foreign city, we had to be at breakfast within an hour or we’d miss the coach transfer, and I’d prioritised a lone quest in a strange place for a book from another country… It’s not what the parenting manuals advise.

I crossed to a more salubrious side of the square and chose a road at random. Abracadabra! There was a bookshop, the owner just opening the shutters! In the window – two different editions of the new Harry Potter, child and adult. I rushed in, I gabbled, I almost kissed the man, I explained my son’s narrow escape from being marooned on a Harry Potter-less island! He was a serious chap and didn’t respond with due appreciation of the miracle he’d wrought. That would be 33 euros and would I like it gift wrapped? 33 euros! But I didn’t hesitate. I paid, fairly danced back to the hotel and woke Rob, who was very grumpy.

“We have to go to breakfast,” I said.”Can you fit another book in your case, I’ve no space?”

“I’m not hungry and I don’t want more books, we’ve got loads already.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll see if someone else wants it then, it’s ever so big and I can’t carry it myself.” I let him catch a glimpse.

It was one of those moments that sum up what motherhood is about. Rob shot up from the bed, yelling: “HARRY POTTER!” Later on the ferry, someone saw him reading it and word travelled. “How did you get THAT?” An English crowd gathered in wonder.

Atsitsa 07 002

Robert had immediate kudos on that holiday. Some savvy people were having it flown out from the UK, but it wouldn’t be there for at least five days and he had a head start. They queued up to persuade him to pass it on to them when he’d finished it. They pestered him to know what was happening until he pointed out that if they left him to it, he’d be able to pass the book on sooner. In the end, he chose a pleasant, mild man, perhaps in his mid thirties, for his successor, buried himself in HP emerging only to swim, wind surf and eat and steadfastly refused to divulge any secrets.

Back in London, two months later, a large parcel arrived out of the blue. It contained a generous selection of recent feature film DVDs. There were hours of entertainment for the whole family as the nights drew in and wind surfing became a distant memory. With the gift was a note: “To Robert. Thank you so much for making my holiday so special by choosing me to read your Harry Potter book after you. Wishing you and your family well for the future. Yours, D.”

Wishing you well too, D, wherever you are. What a great time we all had in the end. It was our first holiday without his father and sister, so it could have been disastrous. There was that delayed start, and the teenagers I’d expected would be company for Rob all turned out to be toddlers. Instead the adults with their shared Harry Potter interest helped him to grow up and he’s now a singer songwriter, telling his own stories in his wonderful voice, while the setting inspired my own first novel too.

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dark Mirror Murder – summing up

Confession time in The Dark Mirror Murder, with a twist at the end so do keep reading. You, dear audience, need to know whodunnit, whydunnit, whosolvedit and who the victim was.But first, a glimpse of the location:

 

Now, whodunwot? 

Mrs Swingle, the housekeeper. Her alibi is provided by multiple visitors, all able to quote her memorable guided tour of the house. She’s received a full apology from the force and given them all pots of greengage jam to show her forgiveness.

Clarice Bell, the piano tuner (or is she?) No, she isn’t. She’s the London detective, skilled in the psychology of cosy crime characters, who watched, listened and probed until the murderer revealed HIMself (for a he it was). She is linked with Marcus Righter – he plays Watson to her Holmes or would if this novel was set in 221b Baker Street.

Gary Leadthighs: We’ve found our victim. Done in on behalf of fed up neighbours everywhere. Nobody will miss him – not the cheated-on girls, not the unpaid band members, not the forest birds whose songs were drowned out. The band members will take gentler, acoustic careers on cruise ships, the many love children will benefit from his estate, and the birds will chirp anew.

The furniture restorer – or is he? Yes, he is. Mrs Swingle called him in and he was busy repairing the grandfather clock all day.

Eva Dorada: She’s only in the story because every country house crime mystery needs a beautiful young woman. A recluse who is always hiding in her wardrobe, she sees and does nothing. So she’s a red herring, but better looking.

The ghost: Well obviously it wasn’t him. He doesn’t exist, and anyway, he’s benign.

The visitors: Nah.They never got out of the bottleneck to the car park. They should have taken the ferry or the steam train, or reserved a parking space in advance.

Which leaves Neil Stephens, the murderer and Young Robbit his accomplice.

Neil Stephens was reading Dostoevsky in the boathouse as usual, pressing his people counter every time a visitor entered. To his irritation, the heavy metal form of Leadthighs suddenly cast a shadow over his Kindle. His annoyance turned to rage when Leadthighs produced a microphone for an impromptu gig in the tranquil boathouse. Seizing his opportunity, he pulled a lever by his chair, à la Sweeney Todd, and dispatched the ageing rocker to the depths of the Georgian bathhouse below. With the splash came a strangled cry – he hadn’t realised Young Robbit was in the act of hiding contraband at the very moment of his evil deed! But Young Robbit, who’s long coveted the position of lead singer in the local band, volunteered to ensure the body was never found, and all would have remained an eternal mystery had Marcus Righter not fancied taking a plunge to impress Clarice Bell that he was investigating every angle. Somehow though, as always, she got the credit for solving the case and all he got was pond weed in his beard.

DollHow to account for the DNA traces? Neil Stephens also volunteered to care for the house at times, and would pass his hands lovingly over the treasured memorabilia. And Young Robbit had attempted on numerous inept occasions to steal them. The important family heirloom turned up in the wardrobe with Eva Dorada. It’s her comfort object, and she keeps it with her always.

Now the twist you’ve been waiting for,which is my excuse for this nonsense. Well, in August we visited Greenway, the holiday home of Agatha Christie and I thought an homage would be an enjoyable way to blog about it. She and her husband were great collectors, as seen in part 1. We arrived by boat with a ferryman of great charcater. We toured the house, were invited to play the Steinway and kept well informed by the wonderful National Trust Volunteers, especially in the room with the World War II frieze.

We explored the Battery and the boathouse, with bath house below, where Christie’s novel Dead Man’s Follygreenway 2 is set (it’s a best seller in the NT shop). Here we met another volunteer who was reading Dostoevsky on his Kindle but had to keep stopping to count and advise visitors. To compensate for turning this pleasant and helpful man into “Neil Stephens” the murderer, I’ll give a shout to his son’s book promotion business, which he told us about when I said I was a novelist too (only 90 short of Christie’s tally).

Afterwards we were wandering peacefully in the beautiful gardens when decibel hell broke loose. The Stones, Bowie…great songs murdered by a deadly dose of distortion and volume. The source was idyllic (looking) Dittisham village across the river, famous for its beauty and its plums, and home to the Dead Man’s Folly ferryman. Fortunately the non fictional ferry was due and “Bob Robbit” delivered us back to Dartmouth and a perilous Kingswear walk along a narrow path perched between the tracks of a steam railway and a steep drop to the beach – but that’s another story.

Greenway 4
leaflet from Greenway ferry and National Trust

 

Words from the wise: writing with Marina Warner

Dartington courtyard

In the warmish summer of 2016 there was a wise and beautiful lady who ran a writing course in the grounds of the medieval hall at Dartington, among the trees and flowers where music plays and voices sing from dawn until the moon rises shimmering over the river.  I stumbled onto Marina Warner‘s course by accident, having been too dreamy to read my brochure attentively, and expecting only music in this enchanted place. But her welcome was as gracious to the wandering stranger as to the more studious participants, and this is what happened over the next five magical  days.

Replete with a breakfast of local fruits and meats, we passed through fertile gardens and followed a green slope shaded by a spreading mulberry tree.writng hut outside Steep stone steps led to a small wooden hut whose interior swelled Narnia-like to encompass a bay window and another storey below. Here we descended to write our stories on days when the rain lashed the leaded panes and the clouds grumbled through the grey skies. But such times were few: in sunnier hours we found secluded dells and tranquil shade wherein to nurse our newborn words.

“Cross-currents in the Ocean of Stories” was the theme: Marina led our journey through stories past and new, across oceans and deserts, from Mount Olympus through Arabian nights, crusades and silk roads and Celtic woodland, widdershins through conflict and desire and the eternal plight of the refugee. In safety we met monsters and explored the byways of fairy tales. We were a varied group of ages and styles, with backgrounds in writing and teaching and radio and television, psychotherapy and the visual arts. One of us could say with proud truth:”I was born in a place called Drama”. And because Dartington is a meeting place for young and old, raw and persevering and gifted and internationally famous musicians, we were also viol players and lutenists and singers, and when we were not listening, reading and writing, we were making music together.writng hut with flowers

Marina spoke of realism and fantasy, how Ted Hughes and Philip Pullman make the fairy-like corporeal and psychological, of the highly valued slave musicians of the caliphs and of the souls of trees. In our hut in the garden, we considered plants: no respecters of borders, cross fertilising, blow-ins without language. We agreed that fairy tales can be told and retold ad infinitum, in an oral tradition that seems everlasting but is yet vulnerable, a tradition that is bottom up, but used and reused by the gods of literature, by Chaucer and Shakespeare and Boccaccio and Dante, Kafka in his “fairy tales for dialecticians” and in our own times by Angela Carter and AS Byatt.

We considered riddles, quests and prohibitions, objects that come to life and speak, (magic carpets; violins strung with the hair of murder victims), astrology and imprisonment, the princess who says no and the princess who yearns, the ghost and the creature transformed. We found love, hate, desire, and shame and redemption in these stories; curses and physical deficiencies; possibilities that break all known rules and yet reside within a universally recognisable framework.

And what of language? There were proverbs, rhymes, repetition, alliteration, rhetoric…strange languages and onomatopoeia. We learned from admonitions and fables and received advice. We told the time: predictive, recollection, time stopped as in the Sleeping Beauty, time postponed as in the Arabian Nights. Who is the narrator and what does she know? Is the child reliable; does the old crone tell the truth; can the messenger be believed?

We talked of modern fairy tales, making sense of horror. Marina told of a Nobel Prize winner writing of Chernobyl and of the Last Wolf of Extremadura. Does cruelty in fairy tales incite, or comfort? She is working at present on storytelling projects with refugees; some psychologists do not want to add to their trauma by using fairy tales; others see it as cathartic. But refugees are not a blank slate: they disseminate and collect their own tales on their journeys, as did the men (and women?) who accompanied Marco Polo and Richard the Lionheart. (See more details of the Palermo based project here.)

writing hut inside

Marina set us tasks. We’d to find an object in the garden and set a riddle; we’d to use repetition as in a traditional tale (I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll BLOW your house down). We’d to write of an item precious to ourselves: jewellery proved popular here, but one man chose the participant badge without which he would not be fed, instructed or entertained at Dartington and I chose my glasses which enable me to see. We were asked to write a piece of persuasive dialogue.Some of us faltered, some of us omitted it, nobody failed, most of us bloomed. This was not a modern course, with aims and objectives and evaluations at the end, or if it was they were well disguised: it appeared that we meandered from curious to fascinating, from touching to heart-rending, from personal to universal, but in the terrible world of today it all made perfect sense. Marina quoted André Jolles: “The miraculous is here the only possible guarantee that the immorality of reality has stopped.”

It’s too early to say that we all wrote happily ever after, but we were set on our way. Updating this in July 2019, I’d like to thank Marina again here, a few weeks before my second novel The Magic Carpet is published. I’m not sure it would have taken the form it has, or any form at all, if it were not for that initial inspiration from her course. I cannot recommend highly enough a reading of Marina Warner’s work. If you can combine it with a visit to Dartington, you will be in a fairy land of your own. May your good wishes be granted and bless you for reading.

Dartington window seat

 

©Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

 

A Dartington bonne bouche

I didn’t post last week because I was away on a music and creative writing week at Dartington International Summer School, of which much more when I’ve unpacked. But here’s a riddle from the writing course, inspired by a tree in the wonderful grounds.

 

A gaping mouth, one sabre tooth and heart shaped blackened eye

Skin wrinkled lines, arrayed from rigid neck

Hide turned to grey and white, once brown (a trace remains)

Rhinoceros top lip; muck growths along the snarling jaw.

 

I stroke the roughened neck along the grain

This armoured beast will live to strike again.

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This bark formation seemed quite terrifying when I took the photo; now home in suburban London I can hardly spot what I saw then. An example perhaps of the magic of a place that can inspire, and of the difficulties of keeping that inspiration alive?

©Jessica Norrie 2016

 

All human life is there

I’m a writer now but this is my prologue. I’ve just retired: Thursday was my last day in school. Thirty four years have included teaching in Paris, Dijon, Sheffield, and various London boroughs, moving backwards from adults down to Early Years. Although “trained” (in inverted commas because the training of the time was frankly inadequate and mostly irrelevant) to teach English as an Additional Language, I’ve taught right across the curriculum, from design and technology (badly) to French (well).

leaving 1

When I started, children with EAL were often taught separately, in a mobile on the playing field, down the road, or in some dilapidated annexe no one else knew existed. In theory, when their English was good enough, they’d “enter the mainstream”. But many staff were less than welcoming and anyway mainstream lessons didn’t stay still for them to catch up, so many never made the transition. Therefore they never saw specialist laboratories or technology rooms, rousing (or not) assemblies or school performances. Quite rightly,  the then Commission for Racial Equality challenged so called “withdrawal”, and an in-class support model developed instead.

Sometimes it worked. EAL pupils were inspired by subject specialist teaching, we differentiated materials and used any means we could to help them access information, they were surrounded by stimulating, varied models of peer and teacher English and many left school with good results. Sometimes it was difficult: one needlework teacher set the whole class to embroider “church kneelers” and from a junior and younger position I had to mediate on behalf of the 90% of the class who were not Christian. Sometimes it was ridiculous. My most embarrassing moment? “Supporting” a newly arrived 14 year old Bengali boy in a Biology lesson on STDs (at a time when I was heavily pregnant). I decided discretion was the better part of teaching that day, chickening out of trying to explain the diagrams of genitalia; his vague, accepting beam suggested he hadn’t really picked up the finer (if any) points of syphilis.

There was very little prescription when I started. For second year (now Year 8) English, the only class set of books I found in the stock cupboard was “The Nigger of the Narcissus” by Joseph Conrad. Historical context notwithstanding, I thought I’d be better off making up my own anthology of materials. The hapless head of English had 25 other random staff to deploy, of varying enthusiasms. One, technically  a geographer but the Geography department had jettisoned her, based all her lessons on dogs. (She liked dogs.) So I wasn’t against the National Curriculum when it arrived. There was still room for interpretation; you could teach didactically or collaboratively or it could be pupil centered or mixed ability or cross curricular or delivered through practical activities, but there was at least some general guidance which was quite welcome after the dogs and Joseph Conrad. But now there is far too much prescription. Teachers are becoming deskilled. They fear using their initiative, developing their own approaches, trusting their own judgement, and that has a narrowing effect on everything. Potential exploration and enjoyment is reduced, creativity  stifled, enquiry and dexterity and empathy discouraged in favour of facts and measurable outcomes. Of course schools should be accountable, but whatever happened to individualised learning?

Later I taught infants, and at the same time I taught French and Spanish at evening classes. The government introduced modern foreign languages to primary schools and I delivered training on how to teach it, often to staff who had no modern language qualifications and a deep fear of making fools of themselves. But any kind of teaching, or training, is the same. You find out where someone or a group stands in terms of their knowledge and ability, and you make progress by building on from there.You achieve this through humour, sensitivity, flexibility, and a range of varied activities. Failure shouldn’t be in your vocabulary if you are a teacher, of any age group, in any subject. Instead, you cajole, you encourage, you reframe, you adapt, you repeat, you reinforce, you inspire. It can be emotionally exhausting as you process everyone’s fears and transform them into attainment. I think teachers could often do with the sort of regular debriefing and counselling that therapists get, for it’s not so different from therapy, except with thirty subjects at once. Everyone remembers their best teachers, but why when you tell people what you do, do so many people love recounting stories of the teachers they reduced to tears, the paper darts thrown and lesson objectives derailed? Is it because deep down (or not so deep down) we all want revenge for years of boring assemblies, ugly uniforms, and perhaps patronising treatment? I think that will get worse in future, as ever younger children encounter stress. Teachers and pupils alike are human beings, with good days and bad, flailing about under constantly changing, increasingly idiotic government initiatives and fads, with a scandalously variable quality of management and all in an environment which would give a germ warfare researcher new ideas. The successes teachers achieve in the face of this are akin to those of overworked doctors steering patients through treatment or social workers (the ones we don’t hear about) providing comfort and reducing abuse.

I also remember pupils who didn’t make it. The two brothers with Duchenne’s whose condition deteriorated as they moved up the school and whose mother was one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, the nursery boy killed in a house fire, the 9 year old shot by his own father and the teenager who came off his motorbike. Also A. who died suddenly in her sleep aged six and Y. whose brave, generous parents provided funds for an entertainer for the whole school on what would have been his fifth birthday. There must be others I don’t know about.

Ayushi's garden 2 Rest in peace.

I wouldn’t have stayed in it this long if it was all doom and gloom. Thank you, children, teenagers, students and colleagues for your support, your thanks and your warmth. Thank you for your interest in what I had to say; thank you for making it clear when I’d said enough; thank you for your hiccups and your successes and your languages and your cultures. Thank you for showing me parts of society I’d never have encountered and for teaching me more than I taught you – all human life is truly there, in a school, and most human beings do not enjoy the privileged access teachers have. I wasn’t the most patient of teachers, I wasn’t a conscientious marker, I didn’t much like helping with extra curricular activities or going on outings, and I have a bad temper. But even though you were a captive audience you always did me the favour of laughing at my jokes, and that’s one of the best ways to reinforce someone’s ego that I know. Long may the humour and humanity continue in education, for even the current regime can’t, I think, snuff it out completely.

thank you

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016

“Walking a fine line between chance and control…” On the narrative of abstract art

My friend Sharon Drew is showing two paintings in the 2016 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. I’ve watched Sharon’s art develop over many years. You don’t have to be an expert to spot the confidence and versatility of her work. At each annual Open Studio event I find a different style, and there is never anything tentative about the way she uses colour. More abstract work can need more thought, so we discussed parallels between the visual arts and writing, and between viewers and readers, and it’s helped me open up a world that I hope you will enjoy too. 

Reculver, Thanet 2015

Reculver, Thanet  2015 (Watercolour landscape study) size 15 x 25cm

Obviously the familiar “Old Masters” tell a story (eg the nativity), but do you think more modern, perhaps abstract paintings can do so as well?

SD: Abstract painting can make a direct connection with the emotions, like listening to classical or contemporary music.  It can create a mood, atmosphere or sensation and also transport one to another place and time.

Abstraction also has a place within the narrative of 20C history of art.  Modernism, in this case, focuses on process and materials and lack of recognisable imagery. This links with similar attitudes in architecture and design as well as literary and performing arts of the time.

JN: So the literary parallel here would be with writers such as Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Kafka, Faulkner, up to Beckett…where the “story” may be a different shape from a conventional narrative, but themes and forms emerge and words play with each other to make another kind of sense.

Do you think it’s important that viewers “understand” a painting straight away? Are you concerned about providing an approachable way in? Does it matter to you if their interpretation is different to yours?

Each person brings their own experience to the work – I cannot predict or control how others interpret my work – I like this! I’m often told that my paintings remind people of something they have seen or even a particular time in their life, which I could never have imagined. As far as I’m concerned this type of response enriches my experience as an artist. I also use fairly open titles such as Undercurrent or Conceal in order not to completely pin down the meaning.

Way Through 2web

Way Through(2)  2016 (acrylic on canvas) size 64 x 76cm

Some viewers are able to engage with abstract paintings without any introduction to the work, maybe in terms of colour and surface, others see an association or meaning. Some people need more background to the work to help make connections. Others may prefer figurative and representative imagery to suggest symbolism, scenario or narrative to satisfy their curiosity and analytical skills. Imagination and interpretation are key to viewing most artworks – (JN: just as they are for fiction, poetry and theatre).

Technical skill can be harder to identify compared to a realistic image and so abstract paintings can easily be dismissed, hence the comment … “my 4 year old could do that!”

Can you describe the process of getting ideas for a new canvas? How might a painter’s planning differ from or resemble that of a fiction writer?

There are many different approaches. For me it’s often a particular process, such as a decision to work with diluted paint or the gestural brush mark, that is the starting point. I usually work in a very intuitive way, walking a fine line between chance and control, deciding to intervene and making adjustments or just leaving things as they are.

I regularly travel to the North Kent and West Cornish coasts and make sketchbook drawings and paintings out in the landscape. On these occasions I am working from reality – sea, cliffs, clouds etc., and these studies record my observations, like a visual journal. Back in the studio I’m not aiming to reproduce these studies but perhaps the sketches and the sensation of being out there inform my paintings in terms of light, colour, space, and rhythm. JN: The writer’s notebook as used by the artist…

The Island, St Ives (2014)

The Island-St Ives  2014 Sketchbook (Watercolour)

As I am based in East London the urban landscape also feeds into my work creating, at times, a clash or fusion of the two contrasting environments.

JN: I also found on your website this quote which could just as well be about writing: Surprisingly perhaps creativity can come from regular daily practice. It’s no good just waiting around for a brilliant idea, it is much more likely to come through consistent work.

Do you know on starting a painting whether it will stand alone or be part of a series?

The best advice I was ever given was to work in a series. This helps to build up momentum and get into the flow and also to be my own critic as each work informs the other and assists in resolving problems. However ultimately I want each painting to be able to exist alone, unless it’s intended as part of a diptych or triptych.


There are no “characters” in your paintings as such – or are there?

The paintings do have different characteristics – i.e. strident, understated, brash, excitable, energetic, mellow etc., and so can directly affect the energy, atmosphere and mood of a space.

Clodgy Point(2) 2015

Clodgy Point, St Ives  2015 (oil on paper) size 17 x 23cm

Is there a narrative to how your work has developed? Does it have to be linear?

Definitely not linear! I follow my instincts and do not worry if a new process seems to be taking me in another direction, it is something I welcome and enjoy the difference. Having said that I do see that colour has been a constant presence in the work, and also my intermittent sketchbook drawings and paintings of the garden and coastal landscapes have been produced throughout.

Very early on I pulled away from representation into semi-abstract painting with abstract shapes, colours and textures with flower motifs. Then I became interested in more formal grid structures and bands of colours before breaking out into free-form flowing paintings made of highly diluted paint. During my MA at Central Saint Martins I made a departure to installation which I felt was a meeting point of painting, sculpture and installation. After this I went back to painting and for the past few years I’ve been particularly interested in light, colour, space, and rhythm and the use of the expressive, gestural painted brushstroke.

The two painters who have influenced me since my Art School days are American Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning and British colour abstractionist Patrick Heron, so in that sense I feel very rooted to this tradition of painting.

I know you were recently part of a narrative yourself, when your paintings were used as the work of an artist whose story was being told in a film, “Art Is…”.  Can you describe your feelings about having your work “fictionalised” and apparently painted by someone else?

Yes, a rather surreal situation of being simultaneously detached and intensely involved. To be surrounded by my paintings and the contents of my studio, but in the middle of a film set, the boundaries of art and life were constantly blurred. I also loved the way the different teams – lighting, sound, set – dressing, costume etc. – worked together with the Director to produce his vision for the final work. Such a contrast to my situation! One of the main things I remember is the sense of real time disappearing, especially as the film shoot is not made in chronological order, day and night get very mixed up.

Great also meeting Paul McGann, Gary Kemp and Emily Beecham … so lucky!

St Ives Boats(2) 2015

St Ives Boats (2)  2015 (oil on paper) size 15 x 21cm

There are glorious visuals in children’s books and I think adults need them too. Could you see yourself collaborating with a writer? I don’t want to use the word illustrate, as I’m thinking more in terms of two people telling the same story side by side but independently and with equal status. 

Always open to suggestions of collaboration!

Thank you so much, Sharon, for helping me to elucidate parallels which I always knew were there but had never managed to put into words. You can find out more at Sharon’s website, her Open Studio coming up on 25/26 June in London, and of course see those two paintings at the Royal Academy.

 

© 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.
finished lotus

mosaics 3.15 159

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016