Games for readers and writers: when main characters play hide and seek.

How hard can it be to find the main character (MC) in a novel? No prizes for David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Mrs Dalloway. Playwrights may play tricks: Julius Caesar dies in Act 1,  we’re left Waiting for Godot who may not even exist, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. But novels are easy.

Or are they? Even the classics can fool us. Are the four Little Women equally important? As an avid bookworm and would-be writer I should have identified with Jo, but the recent very good film confirmed what I’d suspected since childhood. Amy leads the pack.

Some successful modern novels deliberately make it hard to identify the MC. The reader can be tricked even when the name’s in the title. Madeline Miller’s beautiful  The Song of Achilles (2011) is, you would think, the story of Achilles. But it’s told by his 11250317life companion Patroclus. From inside Patroclus’ head, we experience his compelling conflicts and joys, although Achilles’ story is the more glorious and dramatic. So which is the main character? (Digression: Miller makes them so lifelike she dispels the myth that classical history is for Eton posh boys. Do try this unputdownable yarn featuring palaces, caves, love, death, war, the sea, women both unfortunate and powerful, interference from the gods and some daring plot changes.)

43890641._sy475_Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell, 2019) was Shakespeare’s son, one of three children. The novel begins from Hamnet’s point of view but for a unarguable reason it doesn’t continue that way. From about a third in it’s more about his relations and his part in their lives. Hamnet’s mother’s point of view takes up the most space, among others. So is she the main character? Or is the MC still the eponymous hero, or even William Shakespeare because without him we wouldn’t know this family existed or have so much detail of their daily lives?

10376392._sx318_sy475_Monica Ali’s Untold Story (2007) poses a similar question. As it opens, three friends are at a birthday tea in Middle America. The narrative presents them as all apparently of equal status. The fourth guest, Lydia, doesn’t turn up. When we do meet her later, it turns out she’s crucial. But she’s not the childless suburban divorcee they think they’ve made friends with. She was born a UK aristocrat who had an unhappy marriage with the heir to the throne. Later, she escaped paparazzi hounding to live under the radar in this backwater. Princess Diana is never mentioned by name, but she looms on every page, through references to recognisable incidents, characters and dresses from “Lydia’s” former life. The reader doesn’t need telling who the character is based on; there would be no Untold Story without Diana. So who is the main character (and who’s that on this cover?) Remember, outside fiction “MC” stands for Master of Ceremonies.

39346652._sy475_These three authors play highly skilled hide and seek with their MCs within the accessible literary fiction genre. Going downmarket (absolutely no disrespect) M W Craven’s 2018 detective novel The Puppet Show (2018) is an MC master class. Disillusioned detective Washington Poe appears on every page and we travel with him. We know only what Poe knows, experience all incidents alongside him. We see the world through Poe’s jaundiced eyes, share his bafflement on bad days and recover with him later. The conclusions we reach are Poe’s conclusions. So whether we like him or not, we empathize with him because he’s the most interesting and immediate character. Which is great news for Craven, since The Puppet Show is the first of a Washington Poe series. His map is the one to follow if those of us toiling on writing’s lower slopes are to avoid losing our MC at base camp.

The idea for this post came from reading a friend’s ms. She tells me the main character is Anna, her narrator who’s preoccupied by a younger man, Zoltán. From inside Anna’s head, we learn about Zoltán mainly through what he tells her – and he’s reticent by nature. Even so, the reader has a much more vivid impression of Zoltán, because Anna’s character/events arc is vague while Zoltán’s story is dramatic and emotional. Anna is hiding within an otherwise clearly written story, and that simply ain’t right for a main character. (These aren’t their “real” names. I’m happy to do ms critiques but I’d never blog about recognisable details before they’re published.)

One confusion can cause so many others we have to abandon the game. Let’s not mince words: hiding the MC can also mean losing the plot (reader’s nightmare) or muddying the genre (writer’s, agent’s, publisher’s, marketing nightmare).

MC on windowsill (3)

Anyway do as I say, not as I did. Writing with the blissful freedom of not having studied the rules, I thought my Infinity Pool was clear enough, but one review complained the MC vanishes and reappears. Then I couldn’t decide between The Magic Carpet‘s narrators so hung on to five of them (with clearly separated chapters for each voice.) My third novel, currently blocking publisher’s inboxes, does have one clear leading voice, but there was an early struggle between three characters and for months the least suitable muscled to the fore.

I’ve made a vow: Novel 4 will learn from Washington Poe. My MC will announce her/him/their self on page 1 and not leave your sight until The End. The next task is to make them interesting enough for you to stay that long. But that’s another story.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

To Be Read in Twenty Twenty

Sometimes I feel I don’t plan my writing career seriously enough. Although Novel 3 has gone to the agent, Novel 4 doesn’t exist yet, even as an idea, a germ of an idea or anything less tangible than that. An email from a list I should have unsubscribed from popped up today with details of a free short story competition and I thought I’d try a quick story based on an amusing episode over Christmas. There’s a 2000 word limit but who says you have to make it that long? I wrote the amusing episode down and filled it out a bit. I was only on 200 words and the amusing episode had been milked for all it was worth, plus I was having qualms about making hay from people who’d shown me nothing but goodwill. Short stories are hard to get right and one reason is wrongly viewing them as something you can dash off in answer to random competitions in an inbox. So sod the short stories (again). I was given several books for Christmas and my just-before-it birthday and if I read enough of other people’s writing craft perhaps I’ll be guided towards the place where Novel 4 lies in wait.

TBR 2020 2

Of these nine books, I’d asked for five. I’ve already finished one, although I read it as slowly and with as much care as I could. Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourite authors. There’s a slow cooking and slow eating movement, and there are mindfulness and internet-free days and reading Elizabeth Strout comes into a similar category, ideal for the limbo time between Christmas and New Year, probably less suited to commuting. She observes ordinary people in an ordinary place doing pretty ordinary things and she makes them extraordinary and universal. Olive, Again is an older Olive Kitteridge, which I’m now rereading to remind myself of her back story and those of other residents of Crosby, Maine. Olive is now on and beyond a second 43820277._sy475_marriage. She has mellowed but her go-to judgement is still “phooey to you”. She’s kept her marbles (which she dreads losing) and she’s keeping her temper better than she was. The endearing, human thing about Olive and those around her is that they’re all still learning how to live and they know it. They’re by no means perfect and neither are their partners and at times they’re deeply intolerant of each other. Olive’s son, Christopher, is horrid to her and this may or may not be because she was a bad mother. Fortunately moments of humour and love redeem all this and Olive has a wonderful capacity for compassion and understanding when you’d least expect it. But even the meanest Strout character has the capacity to recognise their mistakes and try co-existing more helpfully. “It came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect.”

I also asked for A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier. If this is half as good as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Lady and the Unicorn I’m in for a treat. I shall save it for after my next eye operation in mid February because in the lovely hardback edition the font is a generous size. I’m not sure whether to read Joanna Cannon‘s Breaking and Mending account of life as an NHS junior doctor before or after that – the care I’ve had from the overworked but always patient, expert, and caring staff at Moorfields Hospital has been excellent and although I asked for Cannon’s book it may not give me the sweetest of dreams as I trust myself to their care again. Another request was Edna O’Brien’s Girl, a fictionalised account of the experiences of the Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram. I found her last book, The Little Red Chairs, almost impossible to read because what it described was so awful. But I can’t fail to respect an author who at nearly 90 years of age is still confronting injustice and violence against women with such uncompromising bravery, and who still crafts every word with such angry care. On a lighter note, I wanted The Binding by Bridget Collins because I’m a sucker for that sort of cover – I call them Paisley covers and there have been a spate of them recently. (It doesn’t look as though the contents are very light-hearted though, and reader opinion appears divided.) My partner coupled it with Jessie Burton’s newest novel The Confession, which I’m hoping will be as good as her first and better than her second. Another lovely cover anyway!

My ex husband and I still give each other books every Christmas and birthday. He’s a Harper Lee fan, and rightly guessed I wouldn’t yet have got around to Go Set a Watchman. (When my first novel came out it briefly whizzed past this in the Australian bestseller lists, a moment of author glory you must forgive me for harpering on about as there haven’t been many more.) He also gave me The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, which has a plug on the back from Rose Tremain. Well, if it’s good enough for her…

And finally who wouldn’t want a David Nicholls Sweet Sorrow to look forward to? Bittersweet, poignant, coming of age… it sounds as though it will be much like the others but they’re all so well written and delivered. It will, I hope, be a comfort akin to watching afternoon TV when I was kept home from school as a child with a cold.

Finally, I’ve been an increasingly laid back gardener since reading Richard Mabey’s Weeds last spring. Knowing this, my partner found Wonderful Weeds by Madeline Harley. Next year we’ll (mabey) eat nettle soup and make nettle linctus for the compost, nurture the last remaining bees on dandelion nectar and feast on foraged forest fruits.

TBR 2020 weeds

So what with operations and all the reading and stewing nettles, Novel 4 may not be along for a while. Phooey to that, as Olive Kitteridge would say.

©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

Good reads to give and receive

Books as presents 2

Last December I posted what I’d enjoyed reading in 2018 and kind people have asked for an update. I have three categories for books nowadays – those still to be read, those destined for the charity shop, and those I liked so much they earn a place on my shelves. It’s been a pleasure for this post to look along the rows and find them for you. Most are not recent – if you want to read about flavour of the month books there are always the newspapers and all the wonderful #bookbloggers. But these are what stuck in this reader’s mind.

43611453._sy475_Storming in at number one for the second year running is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been rationing her so I don’t run out of gems. This year’s favourite is Life Among the Savages. These columns about motherhood, although her children must now be older than I am, still ring true. Here’s part of her second paragraph “I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living – sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things – and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves (….) I begin throwing things away, and it turns out although we can live agreeably without the little wheels of things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make new little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.”

Christmas books 2019 1
…little wheels that have fallen off things

As I was reading this, imagine my uncanny delight when I discovered in the pocket of the old cardigan I was wearing – an unidentifiable little wheel off something! Anyone who’s ever attempted to amuse sick children, schlepped them round a department store or directed household tasks from the labour suite will identify straight away with Jackson. “So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen,” as my mother would say, raising her head from her book for a moment to consider the pile of undarned socks. (At least women don’t darn husbands’ socks anymore.)

Julie Otsuka published The Buddha in the Attic in 2011. It’s the story – completely new to me – of the Japanese “picture brides”, young (and not so young) women chosen and brought to the US by Japanese men between the wars. No groom looked quite as their photo had shown them. This is a story of hardship, disillusionment, making do, humour, 10464963cultural displacement, hostility and integration, as poetic as The Grapes of Wrath from a female Japanese point of view. It’s difficult to quote from, for it’s written as though in several voices, themed by arrival, accommodation, agricultural and domestic labour, childbirth, children, the war and so on. My husband is not the man in the photograph. My husband is the man in the photograph but aged by many years. My husband’s handsome best friend is the man in the photograph. My husband is a drunkard. My husband is the manager of the Yamamoto Club and his entire torso is covered with tattoos. My husband is shorter than he claimed to be in his letters, but then again, so am I…We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113 degree heat. We gave birth beside wood stoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. 

13330466Also from America, also from 2011, comes Winter Journal by Paul Auster. In the beautifully considered phrases you’d expect from him, he chronicles his life via the buildings and countries he’s lived in, the relationships with parents and women, the illnesses or accidents his body has undergone as well as the joys and sensations, the food he’s eaten, the cars he’s driven, his love for his daughter, the people he’s sat shiva for…. He’s sixty-four at the outset of this journal, and it’s intended as a sort of audit, far less self obsessed and more universal than I’m making it sound. A quote would be another massive paragraph, but whoever you are, if you read it for yourself you’ll find echoes.

36670917One of my favourite British authors is Jon McGregor, and his 2006 So Many Ways to Begin rivals the two above in the quality of the prose and the universality of his description of a long, more or less successful marriage over several decades. There have been problems – mental illness, redundancy, family schisms. There have been successes – homes created, a much loved daughter, love held and exchanged. Life could have been different; it may have been better; the narrator husband is on the whole thankful it wasn’t worse. Why have I left this book in the country? I’d like to be able to quote you every line. (For anyone who couldn’t quite concentrate on the wonderful but dense Reservoir 13, this is a more straightforward narrative, with more plot. But the strength as always is McGregor’s enticing poetic language.)

40130093A running theme here is poetic prose. It’s combined with a riveting turn-the-page plot in Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. (And at last a book from 2019!) In late 19th century Oxfordshire, a small child is pulled from the river Thames and brought to an inn on its banks. She was dressed in the simplest of shifts that left her arms and ankles bare and the fabric, still damp, lay in ripples around her. The child seems to have drowned. Yet she is not dead. She is healthy, but she doesn’t speak. Who was, or is the child? Who will claim her, who will heal her, and how will the story affect the characters around her, the innkeeper and his family, the farmers and watermen, the pioneer photographer, the self taught nurse and the delinquent son? The only thing I didn’t like in this book, although it accurately reflects attitudes at the time (and today) was the depiction of the river gypsies: it was hard not to read it as racist and it wasn’t justified by the plot. That aside, it’s a great homage to the tradition and language of the best fairy tales (which of course don’t usually give gypsies a good press.) One to save for next time you have a mild cold and need something to nurse it with on the sofa.

37573276My last recommendation is non-fiction, although it is about teasing out the stories we tell ourselves and reframing them for a better ending. In Therapy is transcriptions of conversations, originally on radio, between psychotherapist Susie Orbach and her clients. As she says: Each individual who comes for help craves acceptance, though they may be diffident or even tetchy…I find the particulars of learning how an individual’s internal world works fascinating. This is not so different from creating characters as a writer, only Orbach’s are real. The threads are as compelling as any plot, as some people work towards understanding themselves better and she tries to help others avoid getting even more bogged down than they were when she first met them. It’s not the end of the road, she is able to advise one man, it’s the beginning of something new and possible. Highly readable, whether you agree with her methods or not.

I don’t deserve to live in this company, but in my novels I do try to make my prose as poetic as theirs and sometimes I succeed. If you’re still stuck for Christmas presents, try The Magic Carpet! I can hardly review it myself, but there’s a lovely one here.

Magic carpet wrapped for Xmas

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

 

A Post about Persephone

Readers of this blog, gentle and otherwise, may remember that I do appreciate distinctive editions that champion forgotten or out of favour books. I went to Persephone books last Tuesday, for a talk about Richmal Crompton. Crompton created William Brown, although she labelled him “a loathsome child” when she realised his fame eclipsed her forty one (yes, 41) novels for adults. Persephone publish one of them, Family Roundabout, and it was this that Dr Sara Lodge from St Andrews University was going to talk about, focussing on women wielding what influence they could in restricted circumstances; on neglected children and on bad writers. I’m glad women are less restricted now even if life still ain’t perfect, and of course I care about neglected children. But what really made my heart leap was the prospect of discussing bad writers. Who hasn’t had fun with the Bad Sex Awards and men writing women? Who can forget the lady novelists who come to live near William and express an anthropological interest in the doings of the Outlaws, or the pompous, detached male and female authors who claim personal hotlines to the souls of their unrealistic child heroes?

The talk was accessible and interesting, but I must admit my attention wandered once I knew the bad writers would feature at the end. My excuse is that the distractions at Persephone are hard to ignore. It’s the prettiest of shops, with framed posters and light wood bookshelves stacked with elegant books in trademark pale grey or with fine art covers (introduction and bookmarks part of the package). There are vases of flowers dotted among the vintage fabrics or in corners warmed by reading lamps. “You’ve just entered the 1940s,” said my friend when I arrived.

The shop was closed for the talk (I think), and crammed in nearly thirty of us on this cold day. “I knew the coats would be good!” someone remarked, examining the audience’s well chosen colours, natural fabrics and print dresses. The embarrassed lady who arrived late was found a place so graciously that I almost wanted to be in her sensible shoes. On the shelves at my elbow, leaving just room for our glasses  of wine or fruit juice, were stacks of books by Elizabeth von Armin (my mother’s favourite), Dorothy Whipple, Frances Hodgson Burnett. I discovered Amy Levy, “the Jewish Jane Austen”, recommended by Oscar Wilde. To my great joy there was Noel Streatfield, and having loved A Vicarage Family I was delighted to find a work for adults I hadn’t read. I rediscovered Marghanita Laski  – if you have never read Little Boy Lost you have a powerfully poignant treat in store. I remember Laski as a customer when I worked at my father’s bookshop and am so pleased Persephone have brought this and other books of hers back to life.

Half listening and half inspecting the room, it was no time before headmistressy* hands were clapped and we were asked to form a line for lunch (no need to ask this audience to make it an orderly line). And what a lunch! Delicious healthy mixed salads, fresh baguette and good cheese, chocolate pudding, more wine or fruit juice, and tea served in bone china cups with, of course, saucers. I almost wish I sweetened my tea, as I’m sure there must have been sugar tongs.

*A much loved headmistress, I think.Persephone 5

Once we were suitably replete and had digested, Dr Lodge’s talk continued. The pathos of the neglected children who recur in Crompton’s work was explored, the little girls dressed up as accessories to their mothers but not loved, the children whose parents forget their birthdays, the children whose needs and wishes are ignored and who are, occasionally, slapped. Oliver Twist it isn’t, but Crompton does criticise upper middle, middle class and nouveau riche ideas for bringing up children, or indeed leaving it to the servants and forgetting to check. The satire is gentle, but satire there is. Marriages are respectably unhappy, with cruel chinks in the polished face they present to the outside world, which mainly consists of suburbia. Crompton, a spinster, lived in Chislehurst, Kent and there were hints that in a later generation she might have chosen a female partner.

Then came the bad writers – Arnold Palmer from Family Roundabout apparently writes “tripe with a revolting veneer of literary virtuosity”. I can’t wait to learn more of him when I read my new copy properly instead of skimming it for quotes to give this blog post a veneer of authenticity. And finally questions, thanks to Sara (“So interesting! And not too academic!”) and a chance to browse and chat.

Persephone are interested in suggestions for forgotten authors they might republish (not only fiction). I see they already do one Ruth Adam but would love to see I’m Not Complaining reissued, and a book much loved by my mother and my 1970s self, glimmers to me from the past. This was Life with Lisa (1958) and a companion Leave it to Lisa, by Sybil Burr. I wish I still had them. They were Young Adult when teenagers had barely been invented.

What a discovery! If you’re in London, do visit, and if not they have an online catalogue of lovely ideas  – they will post you a gift wrapped book a month, for example. I’d like to thank friends Gill and Sheila for inviting me along, Persephone books for their hospitality, their imagination, and giving me the chance to use the word “spinster”. And advance thanks too: as a poor selling but well reviewed lady author I’m hoping that in seventy years Persephone books of the future will rescue my own Magic Carpet and Infinity Pool, dress them in a grey jacket and make me a vintage star.

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

Three Brits and an American – my 2018 book choices.

Oddly I wasn’t asked by the Guardian, the Observer etc to review my books of the year. I’ll ignore the snub and proceed anyway.

My runaway favourite was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. It’s a short novel, probably a novella. But Moss packs in enough themes, informations, emotions and landscape for her book to resonate way beyond the time it takes to read. As a reader with a dreadful tendency to 38922230skim, I was forced to concentrate on every word, lest I miss something important, or beautiful, or poignant, or funny, or all of those. Silvie is the teenage daughter of an obsessive amateur historian. She and her long suffering mother accompany him to enactments of Ancient British life, along with a gullible, irresponsible professor and his wiser students. The violence in their way of life builds among the flora (is it poisonous?) and fauna (can they trap or spear it?) of the Northumbrian landscape. The writing is poetic – the stream was…still the colour of whisky in a bottle, murmuring over the stones – but Moss pulls no punches; her instructions on how to skin a rabbit nearly turned me vegetarian. You sense that she shares the horrible father’s fascination with living another culture, and her research is convincing. This isn’t just atmosphere though – there’s a strong and menacing contemporary story that mirrors the ancient ones, and you won’t be able to put it down.

35212538I was intrigued to see a novel with five interweaving narrators from different ethnicities in contemporary London get long listed for the Man Booker Prize. This year, my own Magic Carpet was rejected by more than one publisher because, er, five interweaving narrators from different ethnicities in contemporary London could be confusing. Checking out the opposition, I found Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City is fantastic. Where my characters have houses in a run down suburb, his live on an estate (except the family who’s “made it”). At first the snob in me didn’t want to read the idiom I hear on the bus every day, but I was so quickly drawn into the story of these characters that I began to empathise with them and enjoy the style. Gunaratne gets four of the contrasting voices, so far as I can tell, perfectly – they could be on any bus I take. The only one that works less well for me is the middle aged Irish woman. But the interrelated stories of the fatherless young Muslim boy, the black fitness fanatic and his disabled Montserrat born father, and the weedy British Asian rapper had me hooked, their hopes snuffed out relentlessly but always resurgent against a background of unfolding tensions and injustice. “Dust of an old order mixing up with the sweat of the new. All I do-tho is head down and go beast-mode when I can. Mission to get out these Ends is enough.” I closed the book rooting for them, hoping that against the odds, one of them would have their gifts and strengths recognised.

37805364Those were the standout two for me from 2018, but honourable mention goes to a favourite author, Andrew Miller, for Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. A deserting soldier is pursued by a member of his regiment from Spain via Bristol to the Highlands and Islands during the Napoleonic wars, giving rise to urban and country settings, seascapes and capitals and early pioneering hospitals (anything medical is a strength of Miller’s). Characters reflect the position of women, the orphaned and the destitute, and even the worst embody at least some kindness alongside the cruelty, show at least some fellowship amid the isolation. There’s a love story and a war story: Miller is always good for a readable yarn with serious resonances and fascinating historical research. It would be a perfect book if, ultimately, it wasn’t just a shade too improbable.

17349743Finally, here’s a writer who died in 1965 but she’s my rediscovery of the year so I’m claiming her for 2018. Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial is a hilarious horror story of a family trapped in a cult of their own making, dysfunctioning away in their ridiculous nouveau riche ancestral home with all the neurosis, snobbery and fancy dress you could want. There’s a funeral, lots of gin, a garden party and a doll’s house and a hidden apartment and several seances and the servants must be sent away in case they see and tell too much…Hooray! There are more Shirley Jackson books I haven’t read – I just wrapped one up for a friend and unwrapped it again because I can’t bear to let it go before reading it.

The blog is going to be intermittent from now on. I’m finding the glare of the screen difficult; it’s a side effect of treatment for an eye condition. So I’m going to try and concentrate on novel number three instead and keep away from the keyboard otherwise. I’ve loved blogging and I want to thank all those who’ve read and commented over the past few years. I’ll certainly be back if novels number two and three (when finished)  get a publisher, or if I suddenly have something I want to say. In the meantime, have a lovely Christmas and why not curl up with one of the above books – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

© Jessica Norrie 2018

 

Haunted by the Woman in White

I’ve just finished watching this cracker of a BBC adaptation – it’s not too late for catch up if you want to binge watch from the safety of the sofa.

WWhite1I first encountered Wilkie Collins when my family sat glued to a BBC adaptation of The Moonstone (another came in 2016). TV companies, desperate to repeat the success of The Forsyte Saga, had found a contender. They rolled him out again with The Woman in White  in 1982. I read my parents’ old Everyman edition, which I’m rereading now. At university, Collins figured in lectures on Dickens, Balzac and Henry James, but The Moonstone is now more usually regarded as the first full length crime novel. The Woman in White has no detective as such and even the BBC’s enquiring “scrivener” Emmanuel Nash doesn’t appear in the book, but it too involves solving crimes and elucidating mysteries.

Collins works well on TV, with its tried and tested pot boiler ingredients, as effective now as in the days of steam trains and port for gentlemen in the library. Candle lit interiors of red velvet and brocade film well, and The Woman in White has not one but two isolated stately homes – Limmeridge – bright, airy, a short walk from the sea, and Blackwater, closed in around a courtyard, with neglected ancient wings and a stagnant murky lake, “just the place for a murder” as Sir Percival Glyde asserts. The word “dastardly” was made for Glyde, although it must be said that his birth is the source of all his wrongdoing and 21st century readers may glimpse sympathy from Collins for a flaw that, nowadays, isn’t one.

Collins’ characters are rounded, with varying motives, vacillations, points when their  choices blur. As Walter Hartright, the artist turned amateur detective, says: “the best men are not consistent in good- why should the worst men be consistent in evil?” Walter is young, open hearted, romantic, generous – but also indecisive, naive and impulsive. The otherwise admirable Marion makes a crucial mistake in banishing him before Laura’s marriage. Foul Mrs Catherick, to a less moralising era, seems unpleasant rather than cruel, shipwrecked by unwanted pregnancy.  Housekeepers and valets are not just goodies or baddies, but confused, conflicted, put upon characters whose economic dependence gives them little space for manoeuvre, compassionately observed by Collins. Most servants are trustworthy, whereas aristocrats Count and Countess Fosco and Philip and Frederick Fairlie behave unforgivably and social values help them get away with it. Fosco was more elegant on screen than in the book, where his white mice, his “low, oily smile”, his age and obesity make him less appealing. The BBC emphasized the sexual frisson between him and active, intelligent Marion Halcombe which the acting was good enough to make convincing, but it’s less reciprocated by Marion in the book. Fosco’s admiration for Marion, and his expressed sympathy for his own wife, forced to “love, honour and obey” him while watching his infatuation, redeem him slightly.

 

Mothers in The Woman in White are either dead or betray their daughters – Hartright’s mother, though, is steadfast and sensible. He’s the poor but honest artist, in love with fey piano playing Laura Fairlie, whose doppelganger is a madwoman escaped from yet another isolated building, a “private asylum” (and is she really mad?). To complete the gothic picture there are inheritances, sinister marriages, debt, alcoholism, a powder that sends tea drinkers to sleep, a tumbledown boathouse, lodgings in a London slum, anonymous letters, a locked church in a near abandoned village, a graveyard, jewelled keepsakes…At Limmeridge dresses swish, and Hartright observes women’s bodies moving in freedom: “…her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays.” But at Blackwater corsets are laced ever tighter, and I lost count of the rooms Laura, Anne, Marion, Fanny and possibly others were locked away in. In the end locks and keys turn against at least one gaoler though, because this is a novel of justice and reparation.

Collins, states my edition’s 1963 introduction, “was a radical feminist”. Possibly not quite one we’d recognise, since his female characters miss no opportunity to denigrate their own sex. Marion, is energetic, intelligent, graceful and ugly, and in her first speech of introduction she blames her own  stupid behaviour/attitudes/beliefs on being a woman at least six times, adding “no woman does think much of her own sex, though few of them confess it as freely as I do.” However, the broader premise on which the book is based unambiguously protests against the lack of opportunities and legal status of women and wives in Collins’ day. All Laura’s assets will be signed over when she marries Sir Percival, the family solicitors objections waved aside, although it puts her husband in a position to benefit more from her death than her life. Her father chose the husband for her, and the BBC version gave Mrs Catherick lines similar to “To men like that, character and reputation mean more than anyone’s feelings or well being” although I couldn’t find them in the book. Collins highlights how women were subjected to coercion, violence and emotional abuse, how men fathered children and walked away, how easy it was to portray women as mad or unreliable, and how the a gentleman’s word carried more weight than someone of lower social standing. The legal position regarding the property of married women may have changed (although as late as the 1970s Carmen Callil remembers the header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.”) but, sadly, the other types of abuse are as familiar as they were when The Woman in White was published in 1859.

WWhite4
Marion (Jessie Buckley) and Laura (Olivia Vinall) in the BBC’s The Woman in White

Skimming the book again, I’ve the impression of a faithful adaptation, with some aspects emphasised as they couldn’t be in Collins’ time. His discussion of dreams, memory loss, post traumatic stress prefigured Freud by forty years and give the BBC cast some wonderful acting opportunities. The emphasis on dependency is there, and also the hints of lesbianism and erotica. Says Marian: “The simple illusions of her girlhood are gone, and my hand has stripped them off. Better mine than his – that is all my consolation – better mine than his.” Marian and Laura, who are half sisters through their mother, frequently share a bed. They touch, stroke and caress; their language about each other is romantic. The BBC even has Marion wearing wide legged trousers. In Anne Catherick’s case, there’s confusion between her mental health and learning difficulties, as in the book. There’s clear economic delineation. We know who is wealthy, who only appears so, who can aspire to be self sufficient, who is respectable and who is precariously surviving, down to the last sextons too debilitated to tend the graves in their charge. And here are public institutions: impoverished half derelict churches whose small congregations graffitti their doors, free village schools for urchins as opposed to foreign boarding schools for aristocrats. (Not a huge amount changed there, then either.)

 

Many characters and devices in The Woman in White were based on a real case, the Douhault conspiracy in France. Anyone interested in Victorians solving real life crime, and the influence this had on fiction, should read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher”. Another contemporary writer with a debt to Collins is Philip Pullman in his Sally Lockhart series – if you’re looking for a strong female lead with full Victorian trimmings, you can’t do better. Meanwhile, if this was your teenage children’s introduction to The Woman in White, do reassure them there’ll probably be another one along in a couple of decades. She’s one literary ghost who will never fade away.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Learning to write with Lucy Barton

In 2015 a creative writing tutor told me: “Publishers don’t want books about writing and writers; readers don’t want to read them.” In 2016, along came My Name is Lucy Barton,  longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

Elizabeth Strout, a stylish and moving author, can elucidate in few words what others take lifetimes to understand. Lucy Barton themes include motherhood, memory, childhood, abuse, small town life and much else, but for this post I’ll concentrate on writing.

Lucy becomes a successful writer after escaping poverty and ostracism. She writes what she cannot say. “…books brought me things…they made me feel less alone…I thought, I will write and people will not feel so alone!” A major influence on Lucy is another fictional  author, Sarah Payne, whose writing advice is a generous gift from Strout to writers everywhere. 27875970Self deprecating Sarah: ” ‘I’m just a writer…Oh you know, books, fiction, things like that, it doesn’t matter, really.’ ” When people are kind to her and she can be kind back, she relaxes. Otherwise, she’s nervous and tired (though beautifully groomed). Yet she lectures on the professional author treadmill, a mouthpiece for valuable guidance.

At one lecture, Sarah defines the job of a fiction writer. “To report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” She mentions readers who have threatened her for the views of characters she’s written, and she’s emphatic that her job “is not to make readers know what is a narrative voice and not the private view of the author.” This strikes me as more an American problem than a UK one. Here, we tend to say: if you don’t like what a character or a world represents, just don’t read it, and anyway, it’s fiction. But I wonder whether the passage, ironically, comes from experiences Strout has had herself as a writer. The idea of attacking a writer for a character’s views clearly angers her: as Sarah says, “Never ever defend your work.”

25893709Sarah aims for compassion: “There was something decent in the way the friend and Sarah treated this man who was in pain…” After a student aims a cruel comment at her, “Sarah talked a lot to the class about judging people, and about coming to the page without judgement…” “…you never know, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully.”

“…we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: you’re not doing it right.”  Sarah says: “If there is a weakness in your story, address it head-on, take it in your teeth and address it, before the reader really knows. This is where you will get your authority.” Lucy admires that: “I like writers who try to tell you something truthful”. It’s good counsel, but perhaps Sarah can’t – or won’t – always follow it herself. A male friend calls Sarah a good writer, but with ” ‘softness of compassion’ that ruins her work” and Lucy too feels “she was not telling exactly the truth, she was always staying away from something.” In fact it’s what Strout’s characters do again and again, circling the unnameable. Paradoxically, it’s a more evocative way of writing than a clear description would be. (When I blogged Behind the words, between the lines on writing silence, I had not yet read Strout, or there she would be.)

As a writer who struggles with plot, I was relieved by Sarah’s dictum: “You will have only one story. You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” Even if she’s only a fictional voice, I so want to believe she’s right! Lucy also appears in Anything is Possible (2017) and I’d be happy to hearing more and more of her her one story, from various angles.

Finally, “Sarah Payne spoke to us about going to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” I do not know, and have decided not to try and find out, whether Elizabeth Strout is a believer. But I think Sarah’s is a loving God.

328741031Other writing advice comes from Lucy’s high school teacher who told her not to use the word ” ‘cheap – it is not nice and it’s not accurate.’ ” (It’s good to read a book that values teachers’ contributions!) And Lucy’s friend Jeremy who tells her to be “ruthless”, which she decides means “grabbing on to myself … saying: ‘This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go… and I will hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!’ “

As a writer, I find fictional Sarah Payne’s instructions comforting, generous, challenging, and compassionate. As is the writing of Elizabeth Strout; I’ll return to her other themes soon.

Footnotes:

  1. I’m fairly sure Strout isn’t aware of the British namesake Sarah Payne, whose daughter Sara Payne was murdered after disappearing from a cornfield where she was playing. If only their tragic story had been one of Strout’s compassionate fictional chronicles of small town America instead of real life.
  2. My giveaway of three mystery books – one I’ve reviewed, one I’ve liked and one I’ve written – is still open if you comment here on my short story before April 19th BST. Please do!

©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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grandmother’s footsteps

My grandmother’s front door had panels of stained glass in a multicoloured grid design, so a child could gaze through and turn the inner lobby shades of pink, green, blue or yellow – dark for her mahogany hall table, light for the walls, overlaying already patterned floor tiles with new moods and stories.

In Gran’s cold bathroom, the terrifying wall mounted “Ascot” heater gasped as though about to explode. For all that, the water never trickled in warmly enough to dissolve the bath salts she kept in pretty pastel coloured layers in a glass jar on the tub (no shower). We slept under blankets, and paisley patterned eiderdowns (no duvet). There was a mangle to dry her hand washed clothes and bellows for the coal fire (no heating). Seagulls squawked close to the rattling single glazed sash windows with sills deep enough for a child to play on behind the curtains. She needed thick curtains, for the high ceilinged rooms were huge and freezing at the edges: we were always either too near the fire (come away, you’ll get scorched) or too far from it (come closer, you’ll catch a chill).

Grans house Pevensey Road
My grandparents’ house in the late 1960s (?). Seaside weather took a toll on the roof and brickwork.

The house loomed vast against the sky, and drained my grandparents’ resources. My grandfather had started life as a factory foreman and must have had some kind of buy to let mortgage, moving away from London to the cleaner air and cheaper property in St Leonards-on-Sea. The basement flat was let to a family, with a separate front and garden door. That didn’t stop us going down the internal stairs at whim on unannounced visits (I wonder now how the family felt about that). After my grandfather died in 1967, the upper floor was also let as bedsits, to ancient ladies who struggled up to their rooms by walking past my grandmothers’ bedroom and lounge doors (Oh, how I would like a hall way just for me.) A spry retired headmistress (?), her name easily remembered as she was Miss Toft in the Loft, rented the whole attic floor. To get there she too went through the hall and up carpeted stairs (more paisley, and ferns in brass pots). Our summer holiday job was to fill in the threadbare patches from little pots of red and black poster paint because your eyes are sharper than mine, dear. No paint on the stair rods, please. Stair rods! When did I last see those?

Waiting in the wings is a novel in which I hope to use such details. Meanwhile I’m drawn to searching for similar plunderings by better authors. Children’s literature is full of grandparents’ houses. Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered hers even though she moved away at five years old and never saw it again. “The floor was made from wide, thick slabs that Grandpa had hewed from the logs with his axe….smoothed all over, and scrubbed clean and white and the big bed under the window was soft with feathers.” L M Boston’s wonderful Children of Green Knowe series is set in Grandmother Oldknow’s house, where the architecture of the house itself enables her grandchildren to have adventures with their ghostly ancestors. And the beautiful domestic detail of Shirley Hughes’ illustrations for Alfie and Grandma would embrace anyone in need of a cosy home, whatever their generation.

But there were surprisingly few grandparents’ houses in the fiction for adults on my shelves. Of course, outside the Western world many grandparents don’t have separate homes. From Europe I found Proust‘s blend of domestic detail with memory and emotion. This begins at his great aunt’s home, imagining himself “lying, face to the wall, in a big bed with a canopy…back before my eyes the glimmering flame of the night-light in its bowl of Bohemian glass, shaped like an urn and hung by chains from the ceiling.” Elsewhere you have to hunt for ghosts through clues in the narrative: surely Galsworthy, writing in 1906, was calling on memory for his description of old Jolyon the patriarch’s house: “The door of the dining room was open, the gas turned low; a spirit-urn hissed on a tea tray, and close to it a cynical looking cat had fallen asleep on the dining table.” For a direct if malicious approach I was pleased to find Great Granny Webster still in print, though Caroline Blackwood appreciated her ancient relation’s entrance in Hove less than I did my grandmother’s thirty miles east: “… a huge forbidding black front door, which had a hideous stained glass covered porch full of potted plants that had to be watered day and night”. Anyone struggling with writing settings could take lessons from this short novel from 1977.

More recently, Anne Enright’s The Green Road casts spells in economical Irish prose garnished with select detail: “Hanna loved the little house at Boolavaun: four rooms, a porch full of geraniums, a mountain out the back, and, out the front, a sky full of weather… and not much Hanna was allowed to touch. A cabinet in the good room held a selection of china. Other surfaces were set with geraniums in various stages of bloom and decline; there was a whole shelf of amputees on a back sill, their truncated stems bulbous to the tips.” Enright leaves us to fill the little-used “good room” with our imaginations, while the geraniums take centre stage. Diana Athill, herself now over one hundred, has a chapter on her grandparents’ garden in Alive Alive Oh! “After breakfast Gramps would tuck The Times under his arm and proceed in a stately way to the privy… and if you noticed him going past a window you must pretend you hadn’t.” As so often reading Rachel Cusk I stopped half way through Aftermath with a shock of recognition: “In the gas-smelling kitchen, rain at the windows, my grandmother buttered the cut face of the cottage loaf before she sliced it.”

These sights, so out of date already, still exist in easy living memory (Cusk is at the beginning of her 50s and I’m nearing the end). Memories from childhood have a dream like quality which, if bottled, would make a fortune for some writing consultancy. (Proust’s got closest so far.) Memoir is currently a trendy genre – hardly a week goes by when I’m not invited on some memoir writing course. I wonder if the demand is so high now because planning laws have relaxed and we are so busy obliterating our past?  In these days of gutting old houses, stripping every internal feature to turn them into open plan white cubes, we must nurture our memories. Despite more ways than ever of recording our thoughts, the record itself is more fragile (think email as opposed to letters, thousands of photos forgotten on a hard drive rather than a few curated in an album). If you still have the chance, talk to your grandparents now, photograph their homes, record their thoughts and their daily routines. The pickings are rich, and moving. I’ve found it a homage and a privilege to write about my mother, my father, and now at least one aspect of one set of grandparents. I hope this encourages others to do the same. (Oh, and if you know someone who lives in the house above, do get in touch.)

Gran and papa
My grandparents on holiday in 1939. My grandmother wrote in the album: “We were recalled from Cornwall because war seemed imminent. War came and life has never been the same.”

©Jessica Norrie 2018