Sunday, April 12, 2015

Writing and gardening

A couple of afternoons late last November I planted these daffodils and a whole load more. Earlier, in October, John had come back from B&Q with a great sackful, which was nice of him, but I have to say I found it pretty daunting (I'm the flower gardener - on the odd occasions when I get time! - and John sticks to pruning trees and spreading compost and things - when he gets time!). According to the gardening books, by late November I was cutting it fine and would miss the window if I didn't soon get out there, so one afternoon I pulled on my coat and hat and gardening gloves and went out with the sack of bulbs and the trowel. It was cold, a dull grey afternoon with the light already fading, and I can tell you I didn't feel like it in the least. And the ground was so hard, and there were so many roots, it was such ruddy physical hard work. Each of the two afternoons I really had to make myself keep going, and not give up before it got too dark to see the ground and I had to anyway.

And now here they are, all over the garden, and it was so worth gritting my teeth those two days and making the effort. And it struck me, when all the flowers started unfolding, how much it was like the experience that writing can sometimes be: the sheer grimness when what you want to say is too complex or subtle to come easily, and the need to keep going to find the way to say it, revise and rewrite, not give up. And then the joy when after all it all comes together and looks as though it sprouted all on its own, and wasn't difficult at all.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Unthology 7

Here's the great cover of the latest Unthology, the series which has been said to be 'quietly becoming a reliable guide to the modern short story' (The Workshy Fop). Edited as usual by Ashley Stokes and Unthank director Robin Jones, Unthology 7, due out this summer, includes my story 'Looking for the Castle' which was runner-up in last year's Short Fiction competition. I love the retro vibe of the cover - which incidentally it shares with the cover of my forthcoming collection, Used to Be (it's a bit of a thing at the moment, isn't it?) - as well as the communication-media theme - and it's a great design.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Reading group: Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

This recent novel, Jenny's suggestion, is based on the real-life experiences of the four wives of Ernest Hemingway. It consists of four sections, each devoted to the viewpoint of one of the wives at the point of the breakdown or end of the marriage when Hemingway already has another prospective wife lined up, or, in the case of the last wife, Mary, shoots himself and dies. Jenny was afraid that the rest of us would find it too trashy, as it has been a popular success, and was cheaply available at Tesco's, but several of us had had the impression from reviews that it was in fact well-written, and so we readily agreed.

A few days later I met Mark and he'd already begun reading it. He said he was bowled over by it, and I was inclined to agree, having glanced at the first page or two and found the prose spare and evocative. However, when it came to the meeting, only Mark and Trevor were wholeheartedly admiring, which Trevor suggested might be a man thing (implying I think a self-ironic identification with Hemingway), although I'm not sure Mark went along with that, and neither John nor Doug were entirely in favour of the book. We had all found it an easy read, but John spoke for others of us in saying that it didn't somehow fulfil its promise. Jenny said that she'd enjoyed reading it (as I think most of us did), and she was very taken by the book's structure. She said she had never liked Hemingway and, having read the book, she disliked him a whole lot more. However, she felt that he wasn't fleshed out.

I picked up on this last, agreeing. I said that we never properly get to see what is attractive about Hemingway to these women. Mark and Trevor disagreed. Mark (I think) said, wasn't the point of the book the women, and their experience, not Hemingway? I replied that since the whole point about the women is their fatal attraction to Hemingway, an attraction which dominated and ruined or deeply affected their lives, then in order to fully understand the women we need to fully appreciate that attraction. The objection came back: isn't it made abundantly clear that he's charismatic and wonderfully good-looking? I said that it isn't enough to be told that he is, which I agreed we are, right from the start in first wife Hadley's section: 'In Paris, his beauty has become notorious; it is shocking what he can get away with. Even their male friends are bowled over by his looks; they outpace the barmaids in their affection for him.' A novel needs to do more than tell you things, it needs to make the reader share experience (in this case the women's overwhelming attraction to Hemingway). Although I feel I know in theory exactly the kind of man Hemingway must have been, and have known men like him and know their attraction, I didn't in reading this book experience a sense of Hemingway's. In fact, although I know very well what Hemingway looked like, I didn't come away with any vivid sense of how precisely he may have looked to a wife in any particular scene in this book: as Jenny had indicated, I didn't get any real sense of his physical presence: he came over more as an idea, and a shallow one at that.

John said he was never clear what attitude to Hemingway the author had, or intended you to have. There was now a brief discussion about Hemingway, about the psychological mechanism behind his serial monogamy, the fact that although he was an adulterer, his longing was for monogamy, yet he always destroyed his marriages with adultery: the fact, in other words, that he needed security and a mummy figure but always also wanted a new toy - a typical sexist paradigm. This discussion was conducted mainly among us women, and the general tone was dismissively feminist. I said however that I thought that this was, on the contrary, something to do with Hemingway's attraction. Hemingway's short stories betray a refined sensibility - they could only have been written by a sensitive person. John joined in here and said yes, the point was that he was a sensitive man in an age and place where sensitivity wasn't acceptable in men, when what was considered desirable was machismo, which is enough to send any sensitive man into crisis. I suggested what I do strongly believe, which is that it was this sensitivity that was attractive to the women - or perhaps more accurately the poignancy of the paradox: the sensitivity and vulnerability beneath the machismo front - and why they were so driven to care for him, his second wife Fife long after the end of their marriage and even through his next two marriages. I didn't get any real, somatic sense of this in the novel. In other words, I felt that the situation called for a closer, more psychological anatomisation of a crisis in machismo than I felt this novel achieved - important, even if the viewpoint is that of the women, since it was their precise concern and focus, and so devastating for them.

There was disagreement among us about the depiction of the women. Jenny and Mark in particular liked the differing perspectives, the fact that the Other Woman becomes the suffering wife and, having seen her as a threat from outside, you then adopt her viewpoint. Others of us liked this too, but John, Ann and I felt that the wives were not sufficiently differentiated. John had said earlier that he found the book repetitious: you got the point about the situation in the first section and after that it was simply repeated, and Mark and Trevor had countered that the whole essence of the situation was repetition, which seemed a fair enough point. However, we felt that there was something repetitive about the characters too. People objected, But surely the women were clearly very different characters, Hadley the rather pedestrian and domestic first wife, Fife the society gal, Martha Gellhorn the tough journalist, and Mary the last wife perhaps the most sensible. We said, but we didn't find their voices differentiated. As Ann and I pointed out, although every section is written in the third person, that third is intimate, and there could have been a greater differentiation of language, which would have created clearer differentiation of psychology in the wives. Ann suggested that the real-life history is so well known and well documented and digested that this both got in the way of a fully novelistic depiction of the characters and allows a reader to compensate for the lack and to read into the text what he/she already knows. For us, however, it remained a lack.

I also found a similar lack of attention in the prose, disappointingly after my first impression, and the book therefore less well written than Mark considered, and than several reviews had led me to believe. There are metaphors the constructions of which have unintentionally comical effects: insects whir not like cogs but 'as if all their cogs were motoring along' (how many insects have cogs?) and a group of visitors don't just leave 'like a school of fish' but with 'silver-flecked skin... flashing'. Some metaphors and similes are ill thought through. I was pulled up short by the construction of 'Peonies rise from pots as big as fists', by being quite unable to visualise it and thinking: But flowerpots are bigger than fists, aren't they? Oh, peonies! But aren't peonies bigger than fists anyway?' all of which entirely deflected me from an interesting intimation of violence which I now see. I laughed out loud at 'Cuba became one solid raindrop' as a description of rain, though I'm sure I wasn't intended to, and I am still puzzled by the idea that a hefty box could 'gleam like a tooth', a tooth conjuring the idea of something small. I didn't have the chance to point out these instances, though, and Trevor remained adamant that the book was very well written, and as we finished the discussion, Mark and Trevor were unbent in their enthusiasm for the book.

Doug hadn't in fact been able to make the meeting, but he sent the following comments, tending to agree with those who had been more critical:

"A bit of an enigma for me, just as the main man was in this depiction.  I liked the hints made about Hemingway, but it was also frustrating that he was not more real; the reasons why the women were so fascinated by him were never clear and I didn't get any sense of the obvious charm that he must have had.

As for the women, the first 3 came across as quite stereotyped.  The homely one, the conniving one, the independent one.  But then redemption in the final character.  I thought the section with Mary was superb.  The real sense of melancholy exuded by Hemingway and the beautifully expressed grief and loneliness of Mary in the aftermath of his death.  Mary will stick in my memory while the others fade quickly away."

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Barry White at Stockport Art Gallery

A couple of Saturdays ago I went to a private view of Barry White's paintings at Stockport Art Gallery. Barry's paintings are abstract, and that's as far as I'll go to say anything about them, apart from the fact that I like them a lot, since Barry is also famously averse to talking about his paintings, believing that they are their own communication, not requiring the medium of words for appreciation. It's a bit hard for me to keep schtum, purveyor of words as I am -  at one point I said to someone at the preview that I loved the half-hidden grids in the paintings, and she replied, having read Barry's written declaration as above, that she didn't regard them as grids, just as shapes, so I buttoned my mouth.

Another thing I will say, though, is that the huge paintings are set off to great advantage in the gallery boardroom. Barry is also known for his dark paintings in which he uses a lot of black and grey highlighted with red, as displayed in a show of smaller paintings last year in Didsbury's Art of Tea, and people were surprised by the use of bright oranges and yellows of some of the paintings at Stockport. I had seen them before, however, at a private view at Barry's studio in North Manchester last summer (below), and had loved them then.

The show is on until the end of May, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The medium and the message

There's a question that nearly always comes up in interviews and Q&As: What do you write with: a pencil or pen or straight onto the keyboard? When I first heard this question it struck me as an irrelevant one: what did it matter, wasn't the work, the end result, the thing that mattered, not the mechanics by which it was set down? But then of course in order to answer the question I had to think about why my personal preference was to write my first drafts by hand. The reason, I realised, was that I felt there to be some kind of connection between the brain and hand: it was like drawing, drawing the pictures in my head, only with the shapes of the letters and the words; it was a way to get the proper shape and the feel of things - a more bodily, visceral connection to the story than I could ever get with the tips of my fingers on a keyboard. And the reason I liked to use a fountain pen was that the liquid flow of the ink somehow helped to make the words and the pictures flow. I hadn't always used a fountain pen, though: before someone bought me one for Christmas one year, I used any old biro to hand, and for a long time I was far less fussy about the kind of paper I wrote on than I ended up being. And others wrote straight onto the computer. So surely it was a matter of habit and personal preference, and therefore of no real wider interest in the question of how to write?

One thing that swapping to a fountain pen did for me was to make my handwriting neater. Writing by hand for years with your mind on the story and not on your handwriting makes your handwriting terrible, or it did mine. The nib forced me to be more controlled than the slippy ballpoint or rollerball could, and created subtler, more differentiated letter shapes. But there came a time - about eighteen months ago - when even my fountain pen couldn't make my writing neat enough for me to easily read back what I had written. Eighteen months ago I sat down to write a novel. On the second day I looked at what I had written on the first, and I could make neither head nor tail of it without doing a scrutinising, translating job. Hardly conducive to an overall view and fluid leaps of the imagination. How was I going to get any sort of flow? Apart from which, if I did ever manage to get to the end, how long would it take me to transfer the thing to the computer, if I couldn't even read what I'd written?

In fact, although once upon a time I'd write everything this way, I was by now writing everything apart from fiction straight onto the computer. It started, as far as I remember, with blogging, and I soon moved on to writing everything beside fiction - reviews, articles, reports - that way. Was I just being superstitious about fiction, clinging superstitiously to old habits? After all, I was very used by now to forming ideas via my fingertips directly on the screen. And it wasn't as if I didn't, after all, ever write fiction on the computer: unless I needed to do radical rewrites, once I'd transferred the first draft to the computer, all further work on a piece was indeed done on the computer. It's often pointed out - though perhaps less than it was at one time - that once a piece of writing is on the screen it looks authoritative, finished, which leads to a temptation not to rewrite and edit. But didn't I edit endlessly on the computer? And I thought of the way that my old method doubled the time it took to make a first draft - writing it once, then typing it all over again. So, as I recorded on this blog at the time, I abandoned my pen, and because the novel was, I knew, going to be short and linear, I wrote it - my first time ever with fiction - straight onto the computer. It felt like utter liberation. I felt I had dispensed with an old, useless time-consuming habit.

Well, this winter I came to work on the novel again, and I saw: it was rushed. It was fluid enough, too fluid: it was short of those beats, those pauses and longeurs that take you emotionally into the characters' psyches and the drama of the situation. There was too much telling - fine, well-expressed telling - but, simply, not enough feeling. I could see: I had brought to it the wrong mentality altogether: the summing-up, intellectual mentality, the quick-fire making of abstract connections, the explicitness of article-writing, that mentality with which my fingers, clattering across the keyboard, are so used now to being in touch. I had lost the slow emotional burn, the subtle implication, and the visceral feel of fiction.

I have had to rewrite it, and, guess what, I had to do whole chunks of it by hand. Only by writing by hand could I properly sink into the world I needed to create, and once I did that, in fact, the connections and meanings grew. Perhaps it's simply a matter of time: it takes longer to write legibly by hand that it does to type, and there's more time for the pictures and feelings to form. But I think I actually paused more, spent more time dreaming, dreaming about the story between putting the words down. And that's the crux, perhaps. Article-writing is purely thinking, and fiction-writing is chiefly dreaming. Article-writing requires an incisive, controlling mentality; fiction-writing requires a kind of loss of self, a giving oneself up, a receptivity. I know others don't suffer this associative dichotomy - and surely the children now starting with computers in their cradles won't - but for me, for the present at any rate, while my article-writing mind can fly with my fingers over the keyboard, my fiction-making dreams must travel down my arm to the pen in my hand. (And I'm trying to write more neatly!)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Getting things covered

We're in the process of deciding on a cover for my new collection of short stories which takes the title of the first story, 'Used to Be'. My great publisher, Chris Hamilton-Emery, is designing the cover himself, and last night he revealed the draft below for discussion. It's not at all the final cover, and can easily be changed. I know I'm really lucky to be consulted like this, and its also great to have the chance to garner the opinions of others, so I'd be very grateful for any comments on it you may wish to leave here.

Personally, I think it's really striking and intriguing, but I do have a doubt. I love the Magritte echo, which beautifully underlines the stories' theme of hidden things/truths and things turning out to be not what they seem and alternative realities/lives. My doubt about it is that the hairdo/coiffure perhaps suggests something of a fifties-ish Mad Men or Stepford Wives vibe, and indicates that the stories are about the role of women, which they're not. Any comments would be enthusiastically received!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A break from writing

Recently I got to the end of a big writing project, a rewrite. Because it was a rewrite, and therefore, I predicted, time-manageable, and because I have so many other projects pending, I had set myself a deadline to finish it by mid-February. It was nevertheless harder work than I'd anticipated - I seemed to be going at a snail's pace for the first part of it, and towards the end I was doing ten-hour days at my desk to catch up, and ended up suffering the most dreadful backache and getting badly unfit. I did finish in time, but felt so mentally exhausted and physically sluggish that there was no way I could turn immediately to the next project, and, since John and I had been invited to the party of an old friend in London and neither of us had any other commitments for the next few days, and since we had the chance to stay in someone's flat there while they were away, John persuaded me to take a few days' break with him. I was reluctant at first - I really felt I couldn't afford the time - but I'm glad I did.

My little holiday kicked off here in Manchester with a visit to the newly reopened Whitworth Gallery. I was at the Friends and Family preview (a week before the official opening) which was tremendously crowded, so it was quite hard to look at things, but the new building looks quite amazing, and I did take some photos of the major exhibition by Cornelia Parker with which the gallery reopens. Above is her War Room, made out of the fabric left behind after memorial poppies have been stamped from it, and here is the hanging in closeup:

here her famous exploded shed, Cold Dark Matter:

and here her flattened silver objects suspended from the ceiling:

In London I did some more gallery visiting. First, to the Photographer's Gallery and the exhibition Human Rights and Human Wrongs, which once again was extremely crowded, too crowded to see anything properly, but I have to say that in any case I simply couldn't take it: after one photo of black slaves chained together, another of a German child (presumably an officer's child) jauntily sauntering past dead bodies lined up at the side of the road in Belsen, another of a Japanese soldier standing grinning beside a Chinese prisoner in the process of being hanged, and another of a dead body lying outside a Jewish ghetto while unconcerned people pass by, I was having difficulty breathing from my attempt not to cry audibly, and I had to force my companions to leave with me. I feel it was a failure, and that I should have been stronger, though I also can't help feeling that I too would have had to become somehow inured to have been able to look at more all in one go. In view of this, I was interested in the attitudes of others in the gallery: although it was so very crowded the place was very, very silent; there was a sense that everyone was overwhelmed, and I did feel compelled to take a photo of this before I left:

It was strange, after this, to go down to the basement and 'We Could Be Heroes', an exhibition of photographs of teenagers and youth culture, including those by Picture Post photographers. You'd think this show would have seemed trivial and superficial by comparison - 'teenagehood' being after all a luxury of civilisation - but as always I found many of these photos moving portraits of humanity, and this picture by Bert Hardy of kids in a Gorbals cemetery - I once taught kids newly rehoused from the Gorbals - had me deeply moved.

This was a small exhibition and all the better for me: I find it impossible to do justice to any exhibition in one visit. The next day I spent the whole afternoon in the V&A regretfully ignoring all the other treasures while I looked at Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, a beautiful medieval tapestry depicting the fall of Troy (it was really interesting to see where the moths or carpet beetles had got to it!) and an amazing Renaissance glass panel depicting Tobias and Sarah of the Apocrypha refraining from sex for the first three days of their marriage in order to drive out the demon of lust that had killed her several previous husbands! (And they have Grampa Simpson slippers under their bed!)

Next day the National Portrait Gallery, and I was driven from another overcrowded (and expensive) exhibition - John Singer Sergeant - by hardly being able to see a thing and, frankly, the overpowering stink of perfume and fart, and retreated to Who Are You?, the free Grayson Perry show scattered throughout the permanent exhibition and questioning the very concepts of portraiture and of captured identity. Fantastic! Here's his huge 'bank-note' tapestry depicting the multiplicity of so-called 'British identity':

Finally, on our last day, Samuel Johnson's late-seventeenth/early-eighteenth century townhouse off Fetter Lane.

I'd never been before and I loved it: the winding lanes leading up to it, the quiet square it looks onto (though I wonder how quiet it would have been in his day?), and the long attic for which he took the house specifically to accommodate the long table on which the dictionary was compiled and which seated his sixteen assistants, and where you can now read a facsimile of the original edition:

And then it was time to walk to Euston for our train - though we did break the walk with a stop-off at Ciao Bella - and for me to discover that in spite of all the walking we had done over the past five days, I was still not yet fully fit. Writers beware: too much time at the desk is Not a Good Thing.