Girl, Woman, Author

Girl, Woman, Author

            blogger Jessica was first and foremost an author except on imposter syndrome days and ran her blog mainly to keep her writing hand in     

            having admired Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other she decided to try writing an autobiographical blogpost in Evaristo’s style 

            which is harder than it looks, as each sentence in Girl, Woman, Other has its own paragraph with no capital letters to start or full stops, although you can use other punctuation like commas   

from page 10, UK Penguin paperback edition

            so Jessica made each paragraph a separate block and indented first lines as Evaristo does (please excuse inconsistent indents due to sustained opposition from the WordPress Block Editor; also note links to Jessica’s previous blogposts don’t open in a new tab although links to outside sites do and Jessica who is a writer not a coder is flummoxed and frustrated by this as it used to be simple to do)         

            it was a toss-up between trying the Evaristo style and writing another post about mothers and daughters because the first one was four years ago now and she was excited because her own daughter, not seen since before lockdown, was coming to stay

              anyway that’s all some weeks ago now 

              the stay went well and it was lovely to see each other 

              Jessica returned to Girl, Woman, Other and realised how refreshing it is to read so much straightforward back story (memo to any creative writing tutor she’s ever met that she’ll put in as much as she likes from now on)

    it gave her hope for her own future books

             the reading pleasure she had once she’d agreed to Evaristo’s style reminded her of when she stopped fighting Jon McGregor’s narrative terms in Reservoir 13 and just rolled with them

             (although it was restful later to turn to the conventional narrative of The Confessions of Frannie Langton, which along with the Evaristo gives good insight into the experiences of black women in the UK both historically and now)

            Girl, Woman, Other also has a particularly useful section near the end which discusses the pronouns you can now use for variously gendered people in a witty and clear way possibly only a writer who is herself from a minority group could get away with (although what defines a minority when you really think about it?)

              but that section was very helpful as Jessica is now meeting many people who identify as non-binary

              black women of all backgrounds, sexualities, generations and classes feature in each section of Girl, Woman, Other and because Evaristo uses the same neutral style to tell all their stories (unless Jessica has missed something) the novel gives the appearance of comparing their lived experiences objectively

              and those of some black men too 

              it led Jessica to buy another recent bestseller, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No longer Talking to White People about Race although she must admit she hasn’t started reading it yet

             returning to the autobiography, Jessica started writing for pleasure in around 2010 if you don’t count her efforts as a small child and then a teenager

             after university her writing was temporarily submerged under the stress and frustration of her early teaching career as she discovered she really wasn’t cut out for life in schools but soldiered on until maternity leave gave her time to qualify as a freelance translator

             so where many women worry having small children will stunt their creativity in other spheres Jessica found it gave her space to breathe (she was lucky because her children inherited extremely easy behaviour from their father or at least that’s what her mother-in-law put it down to)

             translation didn’t pay the bills so she returned to teaching and this time got a good fit with schools and management, progressing to work in so-called school improvement and teacher training

              in 2008 she started going on holiday to a mad and wonderful place which inspired her first novel The Infinity Pool which was published in 2015

The Infinity Pool on location

              encouraged by success including an Australian no 1 listing she embarked on The Magic Carpet which she hoped would illustrate the multiplicity of different stories any teacher must take into account when responding to the pupils who come through the door of any class anywhere

               it had to have a diverse cast because she had never learnt or taught in any all-white schools or lived in a monocultural neighbourhood and that meant some narration in the voices of characters whose ethnicities Jessica doesn’t share, which seemed more acceptable in 2016 when she started writing it than now

                 she can only say she researched it as thoroughly as she could both formally and informally and if anything is inaccurate please let her know, no offence is intended but Jessica is a white European author so The Magic Carpet must absolutely not be taken as “own voice” except in the sections narrated by Teresa

                   having read Evaristo Jessica also now understands that using third person for the characters whose background she doesn’t share would have lessened the chance of readers thinking they might be written by an “own voice” author

                 The Magic Carpet was published in 2019 by which time Jessica had been retired two years or is it three, amazing how the years start to blur

                  Jessica’s agent is now submitting a third novel to publishers which is based on women’s voices in a small village

                 while Jessica tries to summon up inspiration for a fourth novel

                 her respect has soared for Evaristo whose style appeared easy to imitate but is actually very difficult because not only do you have to pick out the salient facts and a few intriguing details to encapsulate an entire life past present and potential future but you have to do it in one sentence paragraphs that flow, retain the readers’ interest and win major prizes

                Jessica’s life isn’t as interesting as the lives of the characters in Girl, Woman, Other but it’s been a worthwhile experiment (the life and this blogpost) and of course it isn’t finished yet (the life)

                  it has been what it’s been

                  it is what it is

©Jessica Norrie 2020 in homage to Bernadine Evaristo and defiance of the WordPress Block Editor

Patience rewarded in “Reservoir 13”

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

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

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

Jessica in peak district 1984
Hills above Sheffield, 1982

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

Long shots at short stories

I don’t go searching for short story inspiration, because although the imaginary ideal me often writes short stories, the real one only claims to. But occasionally a prompt pops up. Once, around 1982, it was a double bed in a Paris shop window. I was amazed by this cheaply made, ambitiously intended piece of furniture, with curlicues and carvings adorning each cream coloured plastic leg and corner. Shaded lamps were built into the looming headboard and incorporated bShort storiesedside tables featured radio cassette players and circular indents, the kind ships have to stop crockery sliding about in rough seas. The designers presumably anticipated lots of inbed activity.

I was so intrigued I got off my bus and walked back to inspect the bed more closely. Then for years in my head I developed a story of a young, pious couple without wealth, who are engaged to be married. One Sunday afternoon, out for a chaste stroll, they pass the same shop window and get it into their heads they can’t wed until they can buy this bed to bless their union. They save and save, but hopes of enough money become ever more distant…someone else buys the bed…they grow older and her reproductive years pass…they never marry. Like 1980s Chekhov, it would have been, had I written it.

JapanThe idea may have come from a fellow student in a shared house the previous year. This lovely, rather single minded Essex boy had never been out of the UK (not so unusual then). But his dream was to go to Japan, and he practiced for it, cooking tofu and miso in a wok, wearing a yukata, learning kanji, and saving frantically. He worked long hours in possibly the first Japanese restaurant in Brighton and did well: after six months he had over £200, a significant sum in 1980. Then he saw a state of the art sleeping bag in a travel shop, bought it for around £198, continued practising for his travels by sleeping in it every night until it was too worn to take anywhere… and was back at the beginning again, financially. (He did get there later, married a Japanese  woman and has had a good career, but my short story version would have been more poignant.)

In 1994, just after my son was born, a close friend was expecting a boy too. Our toddler Bobdaughters played together and we hoped for a similar friendship between our sons. Then her little boy was stillborn. In his memory I incorporated her descriptions into a story based around this juxtaposition of happiness and loss. I sent it with my friend’s permission to (I think) Good Housekeeping, but it wasn’t accepted.

Fast forward to 2013 and I did complete a second short story, following a mundane visit to a jeweller for a watch strap. clock 2Behind the counter I was surprised to see shelves packed with the type of clocks I didn’t know were still made, travelling alarms with attached coloured cases, Mickey Mouse clocks for children, faces with large numerals, Roman numerals, nothing digital. They were all priced and for sale, apparently without irony. But who would ever buy them? The shop had run out of time. My story, full of portentous time related imagery, about how the shop is not rescued by a Mary Portas type guru who gives it a makeover for reality TV, didn’t win the competition (Good Housekeeping again?) I submitted it to.

Two stories, two failures (in publishing terms). I gave up.

Until this year. Our Vienna trip provided an idea. We’d been to Mozart’s house, all bright display cases, clever montages, headphoned commentaries. We were unmoved. treble clef and mozartYou couldn’t sense the composer here, although the cheerful and informative staff would sell you Mozart chocs, jigsaws of musical scores, playing cards, and even a treble clef washing up scourer (the house warming present your musician friends always wanted). But the flat where Schubert died was another matter. We walked down a long, quiet street opposite the Majolika Haus, thinking we might be in the wrong place. The shops were closed and there was no-one about. We buzzed to enter the solid main doors, and climbed two flights of narrow internal stone steps. Quiet landings overlooked a quieter courtyard, the Schubert flat looking no different to the others. We rang Schubert’s doorbell. His own doorbell! (Well no, obviously.) In the lobby of the silent flat a young man sat behind the counter with a dull choice of postcards. My attempts at conversation met with a wordless response, but he did hand us an explanatory leaflet in English.

 

After the lobby there are two main rooms, not large, landing view and street view. One holds a few display cases with copies of documents written by Schubert and an inventory of his belongings at the time of his death. The other has his piano (see a previous post) and a console permitting visitors to listen to a small choice of badly reproduced recordings. I allowed the Mass in E flat to warble back through some elderly headphones for a while, but couldn’t turn it off and the soundtrack followed us into the third, smaller room, where Schubert died, possibly of typhoid fever, possibly complicated by the effects of syphilis and the mercury treatment he’d taken for it. His brother Ferdinand took him in and he was nursed at times by his thirteen year old niece. Ferdinand, his wife and children had moved into the newly built apartment only very shortly before, and the still wet plaster probably worsened Franz Schubert’s symptoms.

There were no other visitors. The ordinary apartment, the sparse displays, the bursts of beautiful, distorted music, the unfurnished room where the 31 year old composer died, the terrible start to the family’s life in a new home, presented without drama or sentimentality – no wonder the young curator was so reserved. Did he love Schubert’s music, and resent interruptions by the rare visitors? Did he want his museum to have the prestige and razzmatazz of Mozart’s? Was he oppressed or uplifted by the atmosphere, and did he have his own thwarted dreams? There may, one day, be a short story there, and if I could connect the themes of beauty, lyricism and malign fate with even a shadow of the musical interweavings in Schubert’s string quartets, I would have no need of rewards and prizes to feel proud of myself.

 

 

(I’m grateful for additional information to The Life of Schubert, by Christopher Gibbs.)

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

The heroine now arriving at platform 1

Last seen through a glass of Prosecco, my heroine returned this week. She flickers a bit, but she’s coming to life. This week she’s made cakes with her daughter, had the courage to oppose a demo against her right to be in the country, and rewarded herself with an ice cream after it had gone past.

heroine-with-suitcase-2Who knows what mysterious alchemy transforms a character in an author’s mind, sketched in outline, conceived but not yet three dimensional, into a creature of flesh and blood? I don’t, but like passengers on an erratic train service (though better than Southern) my characters turn up in an unscheduled way. They leave the train at the far end of the platform and gradually become substantial, walking towards me as though they were there all the time and don’t understand why I’ve only just got to the station to meet them.

My heroine is a tactful traveller. Unlike her author, she brings an overnight bag only, which she carries herself.The episode she’s packed today may involve another member of her family, her current mood or perhaps her state of health. It may appear trivial (that ice cream) but lead to something important (what if the ice cream van driver were a serial killer?) Her one bag is significant: full of essential documents and the wherewithal to survive: perhaps her immigration status has been revoked, she’s lost a job or her child has been injured and together we must find a solution by the end of the book (if all goes in her favour).

Look, she’s brought her friends with her. They’re taking shape too: the neighbour, the child’s teacher, the man in the flat downstairs. Helpfully, my heroine is telling me what the weather’s like that day, what clothes she’s wearing, even that her net curtains need a wash. (Can I possibly turn that into an interesting plot point? You just watch me!)

heroine-with-baby

It’s a strange feeling when your characters come to life. When I was working on the last novel, I remember lying in the bath one day (bare with me), vaguely thinking about people I used to know. I wondered what happened to W, whether X’s marriage lasted, if Y ever managed to stop drinking, and if Z’s career turned out as brilliantly as it looked likely to do…and then, I started wondering what happened to Adrian? What was he doing now? With a shock I sat up. Nothing would happen to Adrian, unless I made it happen, heroine-with-suitcase-1_newbecause I’d invented him. And yet for a moment he’d become so real to me he’d joined the flesh and blood ranks of people I’d happened to lose touch with. How strange – but what a good sign. It must mean I’d invented a rounded, interesting, believable character.
Next week: will my heroine stay in the shadows, blaze in all her glory, give away so many plot secrets it won’t be worth writing the book – or will she hide in the siding of my mind while I write here about something else entirely?

Watch this space (please).

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Losing the plot

Six weeks ago I was in Japan, loving it so much I thought I could teach English there if I ran low on funds. I also have plans for Iceland, Cuba, India, Sri Lanka….

On Wednesday 2nd Nov, my horizons narrow. It’s a beautiful autumn day. Trees glow, low sun brushes everything gold. I drive to Epping Forest for a walk. The forest is almost luminous on this shining day. Most trees still have most leaves, but there’s already a crisp carpet of brown, red and yellow on the forest floor. Shuffling through is as fun now as it was in childhood, but we walk fast: it’s only 10am and the temperature is invigorating.

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Connaught Water, Epping Forest. Photo by Nikkii Barnett.

It’s the end of the year but the springtime of my ideas: the novel to which I’ve been doggedly adding 1000 words a day for the past month is taking good shape. Striking details and major plot threads form in my mind as I pace along the paths. Part of me can’t wait to get home and start putting them down – black for phrases to be added to my draft, red for ideas to be developed later.

Under the coating of leaves my foot hits a stump and over I swoop in an arc too fast to correct. My chin and nose make contact with the wooden edge of a footbridge and I’m sitting dazed on the floor with blood pouring from my mouth and nostrils. People pass tissues, but my shaking hands drop them on the dirt and others are soaked immediately. A lady with a pushchair offers baby wipes which sting my mouth clean. Somebody strokes my back, moaning “Oh Lord, oh my dear Lord“.

Behind me: “You’ll be on soup for the next few days, Jessica!” and “I knew a woman who fell that way and cracked a rib.” (OH Lord, oh my dear Lo…ord.) A third: “You need to sit in a long hot bath.” I love long hot baths but I think if I sat in one now I might faint and never get out.

I’m pulled to my feet and it feels more normal to be vertical. As I walk shakily along I only want to look at the ground. I’m aware of people staring but if I concentrate on small talk with my kind companion – who turns out to have been battling serious illness, bless her – then I’ll get back to the car park for the next decision.

Meanwhile I think, if I could get ice on this now….oh goodness what does my face look like..have I broken my nose? is that tooth in the right place? have I bitten through my lip? Blood drips on the top I bought at Tokyo airport (why am I wearing that?) I drive home followed by a volunteer, cautious as on my test.

I make hot sweet tea but can’t fit my lips round the mug. The wine sleeve I find in the freezer and hold against my face warms too fast (no wonder the Chablis is never cold enough). I try a huge packet of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel and the immediate numbness is a swipe of relief. I want to be left alone to mourn my face, the ruin of my day and all those ideas for the novel that seem to have trickled away with the lost blood. I lie with another old towel to protect the new cushions of the new sofa in the sunlit bay window in blissful agony enjoying the quiet hiatus.

B. arrives. He can’t believe our local hospital.What a maze of potholed paths, temporary huts, hulking arches, the derelict nurses home sulking in a corner. It was boarded up at least ten years ago. Somewhere in the mess is A & E, though it’s not where it was last time I visited, with my teenage son after he was mugged, and that location was different to the time before, when as a toddler he stuck a bead up his nose.

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At poor beleaguered Whipps Cross pedestrians have to watch their footing and the buildings have always looked sinister. But the staff delivered my children safely and have always come through in an emergency, despite funding that always goes elsewhere, reports of submerged morale, closure threats that ebb and flow and an ever increasing  patient pool.

whipps-nurses-home-2
The nurses’ home

whipps-nurses-home-door

At reception they say: “Gosh, you’ve made a mess of yourself!” which is gratifying as it means we’re not time wasters.I’m number 297; it’s midday and crowded. Most people are patient (sorry) and quiet. A couple with a two year old give her juice and crisps which she spills on the floor. She gathers them up with care and returns them to the packet. She is noisy, through boredom. They look at their phones and erupt about the wait: “For fuck’s sake!”

I’m called in. “How are you?” Well, obviously, I’ve been better. I’ll need stitches, preceded by the same injections given before Botox. Now I know for sure I’ll never have Botox: they’re as unpleasant as I was warned they’d be. I grip the metal bar of the couch and squirm and the surgeon who is kind but brisk says, Well done, well done.

Eat sweet cereal for glucose, she says. Then sleep. Don’t clean your teeth. Use a salt water rinse even if it stings. Oh, you’d better have a tetanus jab. I stand as though I’ve been punished in a corner of the empty room waiting for the nurse with the jab. I’m so cold I can’t control my shivers. See your dentist, they say. As we leave, about 2pm,  they call number 430.

whipps-a-e
A & E

Thursday. I haven’t looked in the mirror yet. The ends of my hair are stuck together with blood but I don’t try washing it. I make tea and drink it lukewarm through a straw. I’m still cold. The dentist says I’m lucky – no nerve damage, no tooth damage and I could easily have cracked my jaw. I hide at home for the rest of the day dozing and watching Andy Murray’s downs and ups in Paris.

Friday. I sell my ticket for “The Nose” at Covent Garden. I have my own nose story, it’s pale grey and swollen. I pass time meandering round facebook and the internet. Somebody posts she can’t get down to writing her blog post and I challenge us both to finish one by 5pm. Getting it done feels like a step back to normality.

Saturday. I wash my hair! I clean my teeth! I’m tired and triumphant but it’s still only 10am. A nurse friend comes for coffee and advises Vaseline which makes my dry cracked mouth much better. My nose and cheekbones are yellow. B. takes me to South London for a change of scene and I watch a firework display from his top window. We eat very tender boeuf bourguignon and I try a small glass of wine. The food is delicious but the numbness the wine brings doesn’t feel right. I fear doing something clumsy to my stitches without noticing.

whipps-medicationSunday. A walk round the streets, hood pulled low. How awful if anyone thinks B.’s done this to me. On return my skin feels taut but he says it’s just the cold wind. A high point of Sunday is coming home on the Woolwich Ferry, not the horrible Blackwall Tunnel. We sit in the queue and contemplate the lights over the Thames. It’s a far cry from our night walk along the river in Kyoto. I sneeze several times and am perversely disappointed to find it doesn’t result in bleeding or particular pain.

Monday. My French pupil comes, a retired gentleman with a house in France. He doesn’t realise I have stitches until I tell him, so the wound must be looking better. But after teaching I lie on the sunlit sofa under a blanket and sleep for two hours. My nose is dark grey today but the bruise is smaller. In the local shop I don’t make eye contact with anyone. I’m ashamed of my battered face and cross with the beautiful autumn forest for betraying me when I just wanted exercise and fresh air. When did I last look at my novel?

Tuesday. My nose and left cheek are yellow again but the black gash on my lips is smaller.  I return unharmed from a daring long walk for a newspaper.Outside the world is worrying: Trump? Not Trump, surely. I decide to see if I can remember the ideas I had for the novel, and open the file for the first time for a week. But I’ve lost the plot, somewhere in the forest among the blood and the golden leaves.

Wednesday. Stop press: plot retrieved courtesy of Donald Trump. The horror of his triumph sends me back to the novel, because in it I’ve put people from different races, religions and belief systems living, learning and working together. Someone said this morning the only thing to do now is, each in our own way, to speak out against his values. What’s Trump done for me? Well, he’s directed me back to the outside world and he’s made me realise there are more serious matters than my face. Which in any case is almost back to normal now, thanks to the efficiency of the staff of poor old Whipps Cross hospital and the dentist. Thank you, NHS, and thanks to those decent politicians who created it.

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The proud Victorian arches are still beautiful in a sinister way.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

Narratives from the riverbank.

592657Of all landscape features, it seems to me a river is the one that lends itself best to carrying a narrative, either the whole story (Three Men in a Boat or Deliverance), or departures and episodes that hook the reader like a helpless fish. Think how Dickens starts Our Mutual Friend with Lizzie Hexham and her father rowing along looking for dead bodies in the Thames, and how in Oliver Twist the events leading to Bill Sykes murdering Nancy begin at London Bridge. (The Victorian Web has a fascinating discussion of the setting.) Alice in Wonderland begins on the banks of the river Isis, which is where the real Alice and Lewis Carroll sat as he told the original tales, fortunately over a century before Inspector Morse started fishing bodies out of it. Mole starts the The Wind in the Willows  by falling in, Ratty saves him, and then they just go with the flow.

More grimly The Bridge over the River Kwai was a bestseller, about POWs in the Far East, and competing for grimness is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set in the Congo. Surely it’s no accident that these settings have inspired such successful films.

More books set on or by rivers are discussed here, and picture books here. For older children I’d add two favourites. Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken is the second in a long series of wonderful adventures.The rightful heir to the throne is rescued from a sinking barge on the Thames by art students in a hot air balloon! Only Joan Aiken could fit so much drama into one chapter – and that isn’t really a spoiler, as there is so much else in the story both before and after that episode.

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“Battersea Castle”  from “Black Hearts in Battersea”, 1992 Red Fox edition

The second is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Her family have to cross a river on a hastily made raft of wooden logs, in their covered wagon drawn by ponies. (Memory says it was the Mississippi, but the book’s gone on a journey of its own so I can’t check.) During the crossing the river rises in a flash flood and the ponies must swim for it. On another occasion the horses pull the wagon across an apparently ice bound lake. Half way across the ice begins to give way…These stories were based on true events of her pioneer childhood.

Unless there’s a drought, a river flows along episodically, with a start and an end (an open end, as it flows into the sea), changing as it moves along, a place of work and pleasure, danger and refreshment. The river at Hiroshima represented salvation to victims of the A Bomb: For my burning body the cold water of the river was as precious as the treasure. Now it’s a calm, serene and beautiful place, with cranes (birds not machines!) and riverside walks.

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The Map that came to Life sends two children on a walk with a large scale Ordnance Survey map. On the way they cross, encounter, climb and wade through various landscape features and pass significant and domestic buildings. Similarly, in Kyoto, Japan the Kamogawa River came to life as we walked along it and I tell the story in the photos below. It flows between wide sloping green banks. We descended steps to the path beside it, and immediately the roaring traffic was quieter, the air cleaner, and the sky wider. It’s too shallow for boats, but stepping stones led across and we saw them in use. We met a man walking his dog who was delighted I wanted a photo (I think they both were).

There is only one wooden bridge left among the stone ones, but there were rows of old wooden teahouses, bars and homes, and because Kyoto has  a “no high rise” policy the modern flats were not (too) intrusive. After bowing our thanks to the man with the dog we came to another man doing T’ai Chi, echoing the serenity with his controlled, beautiful movement. By the next bridge a flautist trilled on one bank, playing call and response with a violinist opposite. Herons, very close, swooped to pull gleaming fish from the water and there were butterflies with huge orange wings. A volunteer (I presume) group of elderly Japanese were out weeding and picking up the rare litter, too busy to greet us. On the far bank we saw an artist painting the riverside buildings, his back turned to a second artist… who had set up his easel in the water itself, the bottom edge of the canvas barely above the surface.

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And then we came up the steps, past the tramp with a huge pile of bags in a trolley at the top, and back into the heat and traffic above. We’d been offered an oasis full of characters. Long may their stories continue, and may the river add new ones every day.

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© Jessica Norrie 2016