At the start of this year I did something I thought I’d never do — enrolled on a stand-up comedy course.
And even more daunting than practicing and performing a few attempts at stand-up in a classroom situation in front of a tutor and other students was that the course included a ‘showcase’ performance for all the newbie students to perform their routines. Add into the mix that it was at a “real” comedy venue to a real audience. All this after a whole six weeks of study.
My reasons for taking the course were partly logical and partly just a hell-of-it idea to push myself well out of my normal comfort zone.
The logical justification was that I’d written short stories that had seemed to get a few decent laughs when performed by professional actors at Liars League. And, in general, my writing often has a habit of veering off in search of the humorous.
So, in theory, it wasn’t a huge leap to try my hand at writing the sort of material that might work in some types of stand-up.
The big problem was getting up and performing it.
That’s where the comfort zone thing came in. Talk to most people and they’ll say one of their biggest fears is public speaking. If it’s public speaking without notes to an audience that might include hecklers who expect you to be funny then it’s ten times worse. Many people have told me that having a go at stand-up is their worst nightmare.
In some ways stand-up is the opposite of writing — it’s performed in real-time, often with elements of improvisation, delivered in a uniquely personal style and involves direct interaction with an audience (unlike theatre, there’s no ‘fourth wall’). Writing distances the personality of the author, can be paused and re-read and is a solitary activity for the reader. Unsurprisingly, then, as a means of communication, writing often suits personalities on the introverted end of the scale, probably including me too.
But there are also similarities. Along with attending the course, I’ve read a few books about stand-up technique and by stand-up comedians. Sara Pascoe in her recent book Animal (it defies categorisation as it’s part memoir, part biology/psychology, part humour) makes a perceptive point — both authors and stand-ups effectively tell their audiences/readers to sit down and listen to/read their words for a long period. They’re not conversations. In her words, they’re both about showing off. Both stand-ups and authors of books have a story they ‘re insisting on telling the audience.
And as well as the general principle, many storytelling techniques are common to both genres, etc, etc.
Well, that was the psychological lifebelt I was clinging to — as the showcase performance at the end of the course started to move closer.
There are many stand-up courses available, taught in contrasting formats. The course I took was with City Academy (who do a lot of other courses in the performing arts, for actors/dancers/etc.) over six Monday nights, with the seventh week being the showcase.
The tutor was (and remains) Kate Smurthwaite. Since doing the course I’ve seen Kate interviewed all over the place, often about gender and feminist issues. She’s been on Sky News and became internationally famous a few weeks ago for showing her unshaven armpits on This Morning. She also even achieved a high accolade from the perspective of some of the posts on this blog — by being a guest on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2.
Besides her punditry in the media, Kate is also a professional comedian, touring her own shows and with writing credits such as Have I Got News For You. I found her a very broad-minded and supportive tutor, generating a rapport with all the students. She offered a good grounding in some of the practical aspects of starting off in stand-up comedy and provided positive, constructive feedback.
The other students were a diverse bunch (in terms of humour, especially) yet it was amazing how quickly we built up a shared sense of camaraderie. Perhaps it was the shared prospect of being thrown to the hecklers in the end-of-course showcase that helped us bond? Or maybe the ‘loosener’ improvisation exercises during the class — after which nobody can remain a shrinking violet.
There were some excellent budding comedians in the class. Each session was as entertaining as turning up to a comedy night in your own exclusive club.
So how did the showcase night at the Comedy Pub (near Leicester Square) go? Taking myself out the equation, I thought everyone on the bill completely nailed their performances — i was on towards the end and watched with trepidation because everyone else’s practising and adrenaline obviously paid off.
So, how did my career as a stand-up turn out? You can judge for yourself. Virtually all of my performance at the Comedy Pub near Leicester Square was recorded on the video below. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it again for a week but then I relented and thought it wasn’t too awful — so put it up on YouTube for posterity.
You can actually hear the audience laughing — and in mostly the right places. It was a pretty friendly bunch, generally friends and family of the performers (thanks very much for the great turnout from my supporters). If you listen carefully you can hear my heckler (a Chilean woman who was a friend of one of the other students who was apparently joining in because she liked me!). If you have any comments please leave them at the end of the post.
Was that night the beginning and end of my stand-up career?
Surprisingly, no. I know I’m not going to be the next Michael McIntyre, nor do I really have the desire to be (for one thing the slog involved in working ones way round the circuit is equivalent to writing a novel — and with a lot less tea and sitting down).
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the live performance experience and receiving that instant feedback from the audience , both during the the course and in the showcase itself.
In fact, I enjoyed it enough so to subject myself to more!
I joined up on Kate’s City Academy follow-on stand-up course, along with five other of the beginners’ course Monday students and others from the parallel Wednesday course, which Kate also taught. Sadly that course has no performance at the end but it’s meant to get students to a standard where they can venture out into the world of stand-up gigging with a five minute set.
Rarely can a novel have been so appropriately titled as Isabel Costello’s Paris Mon Amour. The city is so evocatively described it becomes one of the characters (Paris: Mon Amour, perhaps?). Also, the novel explores the contrasting romantic mores of two French men (Paris. Mon Amour, maybe?)
I’ve blogged before about the pleasure of seeing friends’ novels being transformed from Word documents e-mailed around as drafts to professionally published finished article. When Isabel announced that she’d got a publishing deal, I wrote a post about Paris Mon Amour as being one of these deserved successes. Now I’d like to pass on a few thoughts about the novel in a belated review.
First of all, it’s a compelling read. One problem with reviewing the novel is avoiding spoilers and, while the premise of the Paris Mon Amour is well advertised to anyone looking at the blurb, the way the events unfolded towards the end of the novel certainly took me by surprise (in a good way).
As well as an enthralling plot, I loved the quality of the writing. One benefit of being something of a writing workshop veteran (through many course and writing groups) is that I appreciate excellent prose: I was constantly impressed by this novel’s standard.
Isabel’s prose in this novel isn’t the sort that draws attention to itself in a showy way but it possesses a definite elegance — avoiding the repetitions and banalities that subconsciously drag down more workaday novels. It also reflects the restrained but classy character of Paris as a city. There were certain turns of phrase — like “it flipped the catch on my imagination” that I found refreshingly inventive.
As might be inferred from the title, one of the book’s strengths is its depiction of Paris as a city. Alexandra, the half-British, American-raised ex-pat narrator, is a perfect guide to Paris for the non-native. This is a master stroke. Alexandra is as knowledgeable as a Parisian about the city’s geography but she still has the eyes of the outsider, which allows her to provide illuminating descriptions to the reader who’s not quite so familiar.
The novel captures an elusiveness about Paris. I’ve visited the city on numerous occasions but I feel it’s much more inscrutable than most cities. I’m less able to mentally picture how to get from A to B than in many places I’ve visited far less frequently, for example Berlin or San Francisco.
Perhaps it’s those numbered arrondissements — they seem like a code that only seems to yield its secrets to those who’ve lived in the city. With Alexandra, at least from the geographical perspective, the reader feels in safe hands.
Paris could be the only setting for this story as, like the city itself, the plot lies at the intersection of sensuousness and culture.
Paris Mon Amour tells the story of an intense, passionate affair through both the heart (and other more erogenous parts of the body) and the head. Isabel has a degree in modern languages and while, through Alexandra, she wears her erudition lightly, the characters use, for example, the poetry of Baudelaire to articulate their feelings.
Paris is the city of love and French is the de facto language of love. The sprinkling of French language dialogue in the novel (translated where necessary) works well to set the place. Also, as a novel written in English, the French works well to evoke the heightened sexuality th both the principal characters feel once they’ve embarked on their illicit affair.
For those of us lacking fluent French, the odd phrase hints at the exotic and unknown world that Alexandra is entering.
Isabel wrote a much-commented-on post on The Literary Sofa about Sex Scenes in Fiction. It was so thought-provoking I wrote my own my response to it. The careful thinking she put into that post is evident in Isabel’s expert handling of the sexual relationships between the characters in Paris Mon Amour.
What makes the novel feel so authentic is that much of the protagonists’ motivation stems from their mutual unadulterated sexual attraction (or perhaps that should read very adulterated?) .
As in real life, characters in the novel make reckless decisions, often knowingly, because they’re unable to physically resist the object of their desires. To acknowledge that people are subject to such pure, undiluted desire is genuine and realistic. It’s a refreshing change from novels that might try to rationalise attraction by over-compensating with a character’s likeable, non-sexual attributes.
Conversely, a couple can be matched perfectly in social and intellectual terms, but if they’re not getting along physically then all other types of compatibility are in jeopardy.
Sexual motivation is just as important (if not more) than any other driver of a character’s behaviour. The tricky thing is that it’s intrinsically far more difficult for a writer to convey sexual attraction than more rational motivations
Isabel achieves this goal through some impressively economical writing.
(I’m not an enthusiast about borrowing the visual term ‘sex scene’ to describe fiction but there’s not a concise equivalent term that I’m aware of in writing so I’ll bear with it.)
There must be at least a dozen ‘sex scenes’ told from Alexandra’s point of view, both with passionate Jean-Luc and her less pulse-racing husband Philippe. The novel is frank in depicting intimate physical details that would never be seen on post-watershed British TV or in mainstream films. Only a few art-house films, quite often French ones, don’t shy away from depicting the messiness of sex. Thankfully one of the strengths of the written word is its ability to use its direct connection with the mind of the reader to describe and explore personal experiences that get little exposure in other genres.
As an aside, it’s baffling why the mention of even perfectly straightforward sex remains a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon taboo. The reasons why so many people are buttoned up about one of life’s most universal experiences people is a topic for a blog post (or entire blog) of their own.
While Paris Mon Amour is candid, the effect is almost always achieved using one carefully chosen phrase or sentence. I’d guess that the sexually explicit content of the novel would come to no more than a couple of pages, if all cut and pasted into one place.
Erotica this isn’t but the writing is genuinely erotic, through its sparing use of tantalising details — a case of less is more – and every detail advances the plot and revelation of character. Nothing is gratuitous.
While the narration means that sex is described from Alexandra’s first person perspective, I found it engaged me from the perspective of a male reader (particularly as I’ve written similar content myself). Through Alexandra’s narration, Isabel’s writing strikes empathy with her male characters. As I mentioned in this post , in any healthy relationship, it seems vital to try to appreciate the physical enjoyment of one’s partner but there’s also an elusive impossibility about being able to authentically experience what the other feels.
While Alexandra’s physical appearance isn’t described in exhaustive detail, one key question at the heart of the novel is whether Jean-Luc, a good-looking, twenty-three year-old man, who seems to have no problem seducing women of his own age (and younger) would find Alexandra irresistibly attractive. This ties in with a theme in the novel that will inevitable resonate more strongly with women readers – female fertility.
At the opening of the novel, we learn that Alexandra is self-consciously aware that she’s entering her forties — that threshold where she worries that the underlying source of her attractiveness to men (the outward signs of fertility) might be waning. By contrast, her considerably older husband, while not sexually attractive, is still presumably potent in reproductive terms.
I can’t speak for Jean-Luc but I have no problem in finding women over forty to be very attractive and, if I try to cast my mind back to my own early twenties, I think that’s always been the case. There are far more important factors at play than age when it comes to sexual attraction.
The novel has a very stylish cover photograph of a vase of shattered lilies (see above). It complements the classy prose and elegant setting but also, as book covers tend to do, it serves to position the novel in a certain genre. I guess this would be upmarket women’s fiction, although my own enjoyment of the novel suggests it’s capable of appealing well beyond an exclusively female audience. I’d suggest Paris Mon Amour also sits firmly in the ‘book club’ category.
One reason for this is the novel’s subtlety. Plot details that later take on large significance are slipped into the narrative almost (but not quite) without the reader noticing — a skillful technique that repays a second reading. I had that satisfying feeling that I was stealthily picking up subtly buried clues about possible duplicitous behaviour of one of the protagonists and my suspicions were confirmed towards the end of the novel. To say any more would be to give away spoilers.
Finally, it’s ironic that the novel was published in the same month as the EU referendum when certain parties attempted to incite divisions and to assert willfully misleading falsehoods about our European partners .While Paris Mon Amour shines a fascinating light on differences between cultures, it’s a welcome reminder of how a shared appreciation of the love, passion and humanity ought to unite us all.
Paris Mon Amour is published as an ebook by Canelo and is available from all the usual platforms.
My ex-tutor from the City University course, Emma Sweeney, has been running a blog Something Rhymed, with her colleague Emily Midorikawa. Its theme is the exploration of friendships between pairs of female writers and the support they’ve given each other, often in the face of hostility or exclusiong from a male literary establishment.
The writers are drawn from all eras, including relatively well-known pairings such as Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell to the more unusual like Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson. The blog posts have been written by Emily and Emma themselves and a selection of guest writers.
The initiative has been so successful that a book based on the blog is in the works, A Secret Sisterhood.
Earlier this spring, Emma and Emily organised a series of literary salons based on the blog and Emma invited me to come along. The salons were themed around the under-representation of women ‘s writing, particularly in the ‘serious’ literary establishment (reviews, prizes, reading lists on academic courses, etc). I was only able to make the last of the three salons, which addressed how to effect positive change and improve matters — by encouraging more reading of female writers.
The members of the panel were a fascinating combination: novelists Jill Dawson and Louise Doughty, editor and blogger Varaidzo and literary curator Melanie Abrahams. I’ve lifted those introductions from an excellent account of all the salons by (male) writer, John Forde, which is on the Something Rhymed website. For his comprehensive account, click here.
While the audience was predominantly female, there was a significant number of men in the audience and this provoked a lively discussion when the topic was raised of whether men are as interested in entering into the minds of female characters as women are with men. I guess almost by definition the men who were in the audience for this event were those who were interested in this aspect of literature.
Emma, who was chairing the discussion, was keen to get men’s perspective on the discussion and it was interesting that a few of the men (myself included) weren’t reticent about distancing themselves from some of the criticisms made of the male establishment.
Like panelist Jill Dawson, my undergraduate degree was in American Studies so I had the good fortune to be introduced to authors like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Willa Cather and many others. I’ve also read many wonderful female authors through writing courses and out of my own choice. The last novel I read was by a woman and I’d guess it’s about 50-50 overall. I love listening to music made by women – some songs provide a wonderfully direct and concise insight into a female perspective of the world.
I’ve been writing fiction is some instances from a female character’s point of view (I’ve had stories read by female actors at Liars’ League London) and so I’m very interested in working hard to try and achieve an authentic female voice.
Listening to the debate I realised there is a way of reconciling the views of some of the participants that men (in general) aren’t interested in understanding women (through fiction anyway) and that there are clearly some men that do.
If you forgive the rather cod psychological approach, I’d suggest that societal attitudes mean that women find that they feel they are obliged to try to understand men more than men feel that it’s in their interests to imagine themselves in the place of women. You might also believe that women naturally have more empathy but, if you think that men hold the power (both politically, culturally and physically) then trying to understand what goes on in their heads may be a beneficial strategy (in as much as what goes on in all men’s heads can ever be generalised).
I’m fascinated as to the extent of gender differences in the way people are ‘hard-wired’ to think (which are possibly less extensive but also more profound than stereotypes might suggest). However, what I also took away from the third salon was that there’s an issue of elitism and class in terms of access that also affects men to some extent. I’m from a relatively working-class, northern background and I feel like I have more in common with many women authors than the usual suspects list of upper-middle class Oxbridge males.
There was also an interesting discussion on ‘quiet books’ and how many of us (not just female readers) like to read subtly, understated novels that don’t fit with the hook-driven, high-concept books that writers are told publishers prefer in the current climate, especially from debut novelists. As an example, I recently read A Spool of Blue Thread, which I thought beautifully written, but like all Anne Tyler’s books it doesn’t start with fireworks and a killer opening paragraph. Much of the first quarter of the book is minutely but brilliantly observed family dynamics. It’s only later in the novel that the reader begins to discover the family’s secrets and this gracefully builds into a work that becomes compelling.
I’m grateful as a reader that Anne Tyler managed to surmount the obstacles that Emma, Emily and the panelists outlined and I’m sure that the Something Rhymed project will make a valuable contribution into helping future female writers do the same.
As a postscript, Emma’s new novel, Owl Song At Dawn, will be published very soon by Legend Press.
Another major figure in rock music passed away last week. Unlike the subject of the last post, Sir George Martin, Prince died at the depressingly young age of 57. Perhaps by demographics or coincidence, Prince was one of the extraordinary number of popular music stars who were born in 1958. Others include Madonna, Kate Bush and Michael Jackson.
I was never Prince’s most devoted fan, and it appears there were plenty of those, but I bought most of his best-known albums from the 1980s. Like many, the first I bought was Purple Rain and then explored his back-catalogue with 1999 and stuck with him for the next couple of albums, including Around the World in a Day – and all of these were released in the space of a few years. He maintained this rate of output at a time when other artists who’d reached a level of success, such as Michael Jackson and Kate Bush, began to take four or five years before releasing their next albums.
Even so, despite continuing at this prodigious rate throughout his career, Prince apparently died with over unreleased 500 songs locked in his Paisley Park vault.
Of all the press and online tributes to Prince that on The Economist website’s Prospero blog was particularly thought-provoking.
(This blog is consistently interesting on the arts in general — as is the concise arts section in the printed edition of The Economist.)
While praising his invention and originality, the blog article raised some questions about Prince’s musical legacy. It wondered if it might be blemished by his famously explicit lyrics: he was the artist who provoked the introduction of the Parental Guidance stickers in the US. I still remember my curiosity at reading the lyric sheet to the notorious Darling Nikki (was she using the magazine physically or as a source of inspiration?) Only a few years these lyrics would have appeared relatively coy. (Apple oddly suggested a playlist to me recently titled Head Music —yes it was that sort of head. Some tracks dated back to the 199os and left much less to the imagination than Prince).
Standing at 5’ 2” and with his flamboyant image sometimes bordering on the effeminate, it seemed puzzling that Prince was regarded as such a sex symbol. Perhaps it was his openness in singing about sex and his inhibited performances – or maybe that he shared how much pleasure it gave him?
The blog also made a related, but wider ranging point that is also very relevant to writing: Prince’s unusual attitude to the editing of his own work. Compared with his contemporaries, his output was unusually vast. Prospero suggests: ‘Perhaps he could have been a better filter for his material…even “Sign o’ the Times”, his 1987 double-length masterpiece, said the doubters, might be thought of as one of the greatest single-length albums never released.’
Prince changed his name to a ridiculous, unpronounceable squiggle in the 1990’s because his record company, Warners, suggested that he was saturating the market with his own music and therefore reducing its value by its ubiquity. It had the opposite effect to the ‘less is more’ argument that’s often attributed to the rare magnum opus produced by a Great Artist — music that’s Worth Waiting For.
What the impatient fans probably don’t realise is that it’s perversely in the record company’s interests to ration their artists’ material. Prince’s attitude seemed to be that if he’d written and recorded a song then why not release it and let his fans decide for themselves whether it was a track they’d put on a playlist or consign to obscurity.
This is an interesting contrast to the traditional record industry practice of bundling tracks into albums or, in many cases, padding out the strong tracks with fillers. It’s the ability of consumers to pick and choose individual tracks to download that has exploded the music industry’s business model in the digital age (after the initial disruption of piracy). (Fortunately the required continuity of narrative offers literature and film a degree of insulation form this trend.)
Prince’s output was so prolific, despite his regular release of albums, that he gave away songs to other artists. While I knew about Manic Monday, I never realised that I Feel for You by Chaka Khan or Stand Back by Stevie Nicks had Prince writing credits — and Kiss was given away before being claimed back and then covered by Sir Tom Jones.
It wouldn’t be surprising if it was this incredible capacity to generate large amounts of new material was, apart from his virtuoso guitar playing and mastery of other instrument, one of the main reasons why other artists were so keen to work with him. One of Prince’s most bizarre collaborations is one I’ve had on CD since the early 90s — Why Should I Love You with Kate Bush — and Lenny Henry on backing vocals!
Prince’s approach to editing (or not editing) his vast output has parallels with creative writing. For example, Prince would never presumably have suffered from writers’ block. I’m currently reading a book on creative writing written by a tutor from a well-known Masters’ programme — and it’s remarkable how much of the book is devoted to generating ideas for readers or students to write about (free writing, notebooks, journals and so on).
After a while I began to wonder whether people who needed to use so many techniques as prompts would ever be productive or interesting writers. They might be able to hone technique but if there’s no story they feel compelled to tell then surely that would show up in a lack of emotional or intellectual engagement with the reader on the page?
An album like Sign O’ The Times (which Prospero considered in need of editing) would be the equivalent of the 700 or 800 page tome, like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings or Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Not that these three books need to be edited (I’m sure Prince fans would say his double album wouldn’t either) but it’s received wisdom that book buyers are deterred from picking up novels over the 150,000 word mark (being nominated for the Man Booker or similar seems to be one of the few ways of overcoming this reluctance).
And for every long novel that’s published there are bound to be hundreds in the slush pile whose sheer length might have been the main factor in deterring an agent or editor from taking them on — open up the Word file, look in the bottom left, word count over 150,000? Press Delete.
When I’m in a bookshop, I’m also wary of picking up chunky books. The argument goes that I’ve only got a finite amount of time in my day for reading and far too many books I’d love to read to fit into that time: the shorter the novel, the sooner I’ll be able to get on to the next one. And that might apply while I’m reading if the novel isn’t particularly gripping.
But, as with most readers, when the book is absorbing and entertaining (when you literally ‘can’t put it down’) then the opposite is true. You don’t want it to end, you savour the last pages and want to linger in the novel’s world longer before saying goodbye to the characters. This is no doubt why there’s such an insatiable market for sequels (even Harry Potter’s getting another one soon). Yet the author may have gone through the manuscript and deleted huge amounts of perfectly well-written material in order to come in under a word count.
It’s similar with films, with the market for DVD extras and Director’s Cuts for familiar films, yet a running time of over two hours is still a negative factor on the basis of taking time out of from the viewers’ lives. Even so, it’s surprising that writers don’t tend to do the same, especially with the option of online publishing.
Possibly this reticence to commit is due to a mutual lack of trust between consumers and the gatekeepers (the editors, record company labels, publishers, film companies, etc.). Consumers are reluctant to initially invest time in something they’re told they’ll like (or ought to like) whereas the gatekeepers know their markets are largely ruled by inertia (people like what they know they like already — unless they’re convinced by clever and expensive marketing that everyone else likes something).
In literature, authors tend to pick up Prince-like tendencies as they become more secure in their publishing careers, with editors often taking a less interventionist approach (the increasing length of the Harry Potter books is often cited as an example). Conversely, if readers think they know they’re going to like a author’s writing then they’ll be less wary of investing their time in advance of reading it.
Some authors, like Ian McEwan can go in the opposite direction. Reading his novels, with their concise, illuminating prose, raises the question of whether McEwan drafts slowly and deliberately or whether the pared-down, economical effect is the result of many revisions of painstaking editing. If the latter then the reader might sometimes wish McEwan had been a little less incisive and left in some of the deleted text for our pleasure. Yet to do so would dilute what is so admirable about his overall prose style.
I sometimes come across this dilemma when I’m workshopping in a writing group. A writer might bring along a section of a manuscript that’s filled with brilliant description in a paragraph, sometimes relating to the same subject. The typical response is to suggest that the description be pared down — only leave in what’s necessary to advance the plot and the character.
And so the writer is told to pick the best of their all-round strong writing and discard the rest — even though it might be almost as superb. It’s a paradox that the way to highlight excellent writing is to destroy much of it.
On the other hand another writer whose talents are more concentrated on other aspects of writing (e.g. plot) might be encouraged for descriptive prose which is less thrilling, precisely because there’s less of it to be selective about praising.
It’s part of the ‘kill your darlings’ advice which is often misapplied to suggest there isn’t a place in any novel for writing that’s a pleasure to read for its own sake. It also fits with the exhortation that ‘less is more’ but it’s far easier to say than to put this advice into practice. Often people will receive feedback from creative writing workshops or tutors with the vague advice that ‘this should be shorter’ but then also ask for missing information on backstory or description to be included.
Perhaps ‘this should be shorter’ really means that the person giving the feedback would have rather spent their hard-pressed time doing something else than reading the writing in question. In which case, the more honest feedback would be that the writing wasn’t particularly engaging (or that, as I’m sure often happens, the person giving the feedback wasn’t devoting their full attention in the way they might if they’d paid to buy a book).
So how would Prince’s back catalogue fared if subjected to a creative writing workshop? You’d have hoped that the likes of 1999, When Doves Cry, Sign O’ The Times, Nothing Compares to U, Raspberry Beret and Little Red Corvette might have made it through the workshopping process but some of the more esoteric material might have remained in an even-larger vault — even though it may have been stronger than much of the other music in the charts at the time.
This poses the question of whether an artist’s legacy stands on the peaks of his or her achievement rather than its consistency. Is a musician’s or writer’s reputation enhanced by hiding their lesser works?
By retaining a huge amount of control over his work, Prince took the view that he’d let the public be his editors. Perhaps Prospero was right in that his legacy amongst the critics might have been stronger if he’d been more selective but the lesser known work will have been enjoyed by some people. Would it have been right to have killed that small pleasure in the name of reputation?
I don’t normally join in with all the RIPs messages on Facebook and Twitter and so on that follow the deaths of well-known people. However, George Martin, who died recently at the age of 90, was an exception.
It’s indisputable that he made an enormous contribution to popular culture by guiding the music of The Beatles with intelligence and innovation. Although he didn’t write or (mostly) perform the music, his influence was indispensable.
His crossing of boundaries between genres opened the door to the Beatles’ innate curiosity and desire to push the boundaries of pop music (as it was then). George Martin’s background in classical production and, most importantly, comedy records with the likes of Peter Sellers and the Goons not only meant he was the only A&R man who saw any potential in the Beatles but also allowed him to explore techniques that had never been used before in recorded music.
To go from recording Please Please Me to Tomorrow Never Knows (still one of the most experimental tracks ever released on a popular album) in the space of three years is completely mind-blowing. For seven years he managed to keep two of the most talented ever singer-songwriters working together and made them more than the sum of their phenomenal parts.
The fact that Lennon and McCartney split all their song-writing credits 50-50 until even past the end of The Beatles (Give Peace A Chance is co-credited to Paul McCartney) must have been, at least in part, an incredible reflection of the atmosphere of mutual openness and lack of ego that Martin’s tolerant personality fostered.
George Martin was born in the 1920’s: closer to my own grandparents’ ages than even of my parents.While he produced the likes of Helter Skelter, he also brought out the streak of English nostalgia that characterises many of the Beatles most loved songs, especially around Sergeant Pepper and, in that sense, his passing cuts that link of continuity with the England of the past which cuts through so many Beatles songs (Penny Lane, A Day in the Life, Polythene Pam, Golden Slumbers, In My Life, Eleanor Rigby, Yellow Submarine and many more).
In my (humble) opinion the work he produced with the Beatles is the greatest and most significant cultural achievement of the 20th century – both artistically in itself and for its enduring influence. The fact there’s a quite a bit of throwaway rubbish in there only emphasises how supernaturally great the best of it was.
the Beatles catalogue is an example of a truth that relates to all artists’ work: that it is the heights of achievement that are remembered while the low-points are usually discreetly forgotten (there weren’t that many duds in the Beatles’ back catalogue — but Wild Honey Pie and Dig It?). Create a work of genius and you’ll be remembered for that alone (as evidenced by the great fondness shown towards Bowie’s music after he died.)
The Beatles also embraced another principle of great artists — of moving forward, reinventing themselves and not churning out the same old style of music (as most of their sixties contemporaries did — and some still do). And in George Martin, the Beatles had the perfect foil for their innovation.
From listening to the many tributes — and a repeat of a fascinating BBC6 documentary — it seems very unlikely that George Martin ever dismissed the Beatles’ novel musical suggestions. He tried to understand the sounds they’d imagined (especially John Lennon) and translate that concept to make it work as best practical — the splicing together of Strawberry Fields Forever being a famous example.
Most producers wouldn’t have had the patience. Similarly with writing, it’s sometimes an easy option to give feedback that sets another writer on a safe but formulaic direction. The non-prescriptive approach typified by George Martin is similar to the approach of a sympathetic and encouraging editor or writing tutor.
From the use of feedback at the start of I Feel Fine or the sitar on Norwegian Wood,The Beatles weren’t afraid to experiment — and to fail through their experimentation. George Harrison’s Indian inspired songs aren’t likely to be everyone’s cup of tea but they represented an incredibly imaginative approach to instrumentation. Without the sound collages of Revolution 9 would the Beatles have sewn together side two of Abbey Road so seamlessly?
One aspect of George Martin’s career that was perhaps viewed too literally in the various tributes was the way he wrung amazing sounds out of primitive technology. George Martin should be given credit in general for the way he applied technology to art — starting a process that’s still being explored today.
Until the Beatles Rubber Soul and Revolver (and Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds in response) music had been recorded largely as it was performed.
In the atmosphere of the sixties’ ‘white heat of technology’ EMI had recruited a brilliant team of engineers to work at Abbey Road who, in some ways, worked in the same highly professional way as their equivalents in NASA who were pushing their technology to the limit to get a man on the moon. George Martin could rely on the engineers’ ingenuity and diligence to record the Beatles’ boundary-pushing sounds.
I was fortunate enough a couple of years ago to actually go inside the famous studios (I even used the Gents’ toilet the Beatles would have used — and it’s probably not changed since then).
It was an event to mark 80 years of recording in the studios and it was held in studio two — where the Beatles recorded almost all their material. Much of their original equipment was on display — the tape machine that recorded Sergeant Pepper and the mixing desk used for Abbey Road.
The pianos used on the records were also present. In the photo above I’m standing nearest the incredibly anonymous looking upright piano that was used most frequently in their recordings. It looks like an instrument you’d find in a church hall or a school music room but its tones are ubiquitous. They’re quite possibly being played by a million devices around the world at any given second.
One story about George Martin that was often repeated often in his obituaries was that he was the last record producer in London who hadn’t turned the Beatles down. Even despite Brian Epstein’s commercial influence in the north, all the other A&R men had seen no promise in the band whatsoever.
This is often seen as a ‘perseverance pays’ or a ‘talent will out’ story but it might be better to view it as a lesson in what might never have been.
In his fascinating book The Great British Dream Factoryhistorian Dominic Sandbrook speculates what might have happened to the Beatles had George Martin not trusted his instincts and turned them down. Sandbrook thought Lennon would have surfaced into the public consciousness somehow but the other three may have remained in obscurity in Liverpool (as did Pete Best, the sacked Beatle).
I disagree with Dominic Sandbrook’s prediction. Paul McCartney’s talent is so immense that he surely would have achieved some professional musical success, although without the collaborators who pushed him on to greatness. John Lennon — who knows? Maybe if his musical ambitions were thwarted he’d have gone into another art form (remember he published books of his drawings) or perhaps politics?
Either way all those timeless songs would never have made it out of their respective bathrooms or local pubs. And remember that every other record label had rejected the Beatles. Rather than arguing this shows the process worked, it should be appreciated how it very nearly didn’t — whether because the auditioning system was flawed or because those making the decisions were so wrong.
As a result every music lover should be eternally grateful that George Martin didn’t sign some me-too, manufactured, formulaic act and took a risk in embarking on that wonderfully imaginative journey with The Beatles. If the measure of a good life is to leave the world a better place than one found it then George Martin well and truly passed the audition.
The media last week was dominated by the sad death of David Bowie. Television specials and special printed tributes were ubiquitous, packed with quotations from figures from all walks of life — not only musicians and artists but the most un-Bowie-like people, such as politicians like David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon (ironic, given that one of the very few public comments Bowie made during his final illness was to urge Scots to vote ‘no’ to independence).
The release of his last album only two days before his death heightened the shock many felt at the news. This was perhaps all the more profound because of his influence on the tail end of the baby-boomers. This is the generation that’s slightly younger than Bowie, in their mid to late fifties and early sixties — and hence likely to be at the high point of their careers. These include people likely to be in positions of power in the arts and media establishments and to thank Bowie for . They’re likely to thank Bowie for bringing a sense of subversion and his message of individuality to their formative years.
Now he’s gone — and by natural causes too — everyone who remembers him in his prime has a reminder of their own mortality.
I’m too young to remember much of Bowie in the 70s — just a few catchy singles but definitely nothing of Ziggy Stardust.
It was Ashes to Ashes that made the first significant impression on me. I can still listen to the song over and over again. I love its its uniquely strange sound (especially the grunting monster yells on the album version) but listening to it again, it’s amazing how much of a template the rhythmic elements in the backing track became a template for so much eighties music (listen to the funk bass and the choppy guitar sound).
I did think the video (with all the nascent New Romantics as extras) was mostly a load of pretentious bollocks it was still quite a moving experience to see the famous Pierrot clown costume in the David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A in 2013. I wrote about my thoughts on Bowie and the exhibition at the time in this post especially his influence countering homogeneity.
In retrospect the fact that the exhibition was staged while Bowie was still alive showed how indisputable his influence had been — even before the inevitable posthumous reassessment.
While Bowie has been mourned and celebrated worldwide, he emerged from London at the turn of the sixties as a completely original talent — typical of the eccentric and unconventional type that England has the indisputable knack of creating.
It’s been plausibly argued, for example in a recent London Evening Standard article, that the creative arts industry is the UK’s biggest industry sector (if you deduct the taxpayers’ bailout of the financial industry which is officially first). And while Bowie was a product of this uniquely British creative culture, he’s certainly done a lot to perpetuate its continuity, (Although it’s been pointed out that Bowie and Alan Rickman, who sadly died a week after Bowie, were both products of a socially upwardly mobile culture that may have already begun to recede).
On a similar theme of post-war British upward mobility, I read that Major Tom, Bowie’s persona in Space Oddity, was inspired by a poster he saw as a child in Bromley for a music hall performance by a Major Tom. This turned out to be Tom Major-Ball, the father of another high-achiever from Brixton, future Prime-Minister John Major.
With its themes of isolation, disconnection and remotely observing the world while also being the centre of its attention, Space Oddity can be seen as more than a topical song that was cleverly timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landings. It can be interpreted a prophetic analogy of the journey into the orbit of celebrity stardom that Bowie had been set on trying to achieve for several years while working packing boxes and in other dead-end jobs in 60’s Soho.
David Bowie’s wider influence on modern culture was so significant that he must have the rare distinction of special tributes in the likes of OK! and Hello magazines as well as the very rare honour of a two page (rather than the standard one page) obituary in this week’s Economist(note the respectful reference to Mr Bowie.
The proof was in the playing. Mr Bowie grew up as David Jones, a sharp-toothed kid from dull suburban Bromley whose parents held no aspirations for him. Through a talent born of yearning he had transformed himself into Ziggy Stardust: extravagant, flawed and sexually polymorphous, tottering on platform shoes and hiding behind a mask of paint…Mr Bowie had taken a while to attract attention. Stuck in 1960s London, he picked up a saxophone and considered jazz, then flitted between bands; he moved from mod to Buddhist, from rocker to folk artist, hanging around London’s Soho with its sex shops and music clubs, exploring sexual ambiguity. Despite the success of “Space Oddity” his early albums drew little attention. It was only with the fifth, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, (1972) that millions of teenagers in semi-detached houses just like the one back in Bromley took him to their hearts and turntables.
As the article points out, what’s not been emphasised in most of the coverage of Bowie’s profound impact on 70’s culture (in music, fashion and, as it’s being argued in defining attitudes towards gender and sexuality), is that Bowie was far from an overnight success.
Ironically, for an artist who’s credited with revolutionising many genres, David Bowie (or at first David Jones) attempted to break into the music business for over five years before achieving a breakthrough.
His first single was released in 1964 and an album (which failed to chart at all) in 1967. The first chapter of the David Bowie Is book (which must be the definitive publication for Bowie fans with its vast range of photographs) relates how David Jones (and then Bowie) relentlessly tried to break through into the entertainment industry, following trends from Mods to psychedelia, and not just as a musician. He had a manager, Ken Pitt, from 1966 onwards who advertised Bowie as an actor in casting publications. Of course Bowie did follow an acting career later but it’s doubtful if he’d have diversified into a successful musical from an acting background (Kylie Minogue is probably the exception that proves the rule).
The first section of the David Bowie Is exhibition curated many exhibits from this long period of failure – and it’s telling that David Bowie preserved these artefacts as carefully as he kept the items from his more successful eras. They were placed at the start of the exhibition, perhaps to emphasise the huge but thankless efforts he was making while many other artists achieved instant success.
So the artist elevated by the cultural establishment now as a figure who is said to have changed the world with his innovative genius was almost completely ignored by the music and other creative industries of the 1960s. It’s only due to Bowie’s tenacity and belief in himself that he persisted and was very belatedly given the stage and exposure for his talent.
And although it could be argued, at least retrospectively, that Bowie was a product of the disruptions in social conventions of the time, there was no-one in the music business on the lookout for looking for a flamboyant, gender-blurring singer who’d constantly reinvent an image as soon as it became popular. Even a couple of years after its release in 1969 Space Oddity could have been viewed as a one-hit wonder. Life on Mars, Starman and Ziggy Stardust didn’t appear until the early seventies.
In some ways, Bowie’s career is great testament to the value of self-belief and perseverance. However, during this period he was disillusioned enough to announce in The Ship on Wardour Street, that he was taking a sabbatical from the London music scene.
He said his intention was to become a Buddhist monk. Fortunately he didn’t and he eventually worked on mime, dance and experimental art, such as the Beckenham Arts Lab. Such influences may have given him a more interesting image as an artist when he eventually became established as a singer but he could equally followed a non-musical direction.
Bowie had countless rejections over many years and the only person who can really take credit for David Bowie’s body of work and artistic legacy is David Bowie himself. No record company or manager was looking someone to fill a Bowie-shaped gap in their roster of artists.
Bowie is another example of an immensely talented artist who went from being virtually the only person who believed in himself at the outset to an undisputed, global cultural figure. And there are many examples of similar artists, famously The Beatles, and writers, most notably J.K.Rowling who were passed over by record companies or editors because they didn’t offer what was currently popular in the market.
Such examples are often used of how endless persistence pays off. This is true in the case of those who eventually break through, but it’s impossible to know how many potential Bowies fail to achieve recognition, no matter how hard they try.
It’s easy to tell creative people to be persistent because it’s easier to rationalise a lack of success due to an according lack of perseverance rather than lack of talent or (perhaps worse) a lack of appetite for risk or ambitions or just plain lack of insight by the cultural gatekeepers.
Perhaps this long period of toiling in the shadows is why Bowie was always regarded by those who knew him as polite, down-to-earth and very humble. Those who’ve lavishly praised him need to thank his persistence for the enormous influence that stemmed from it. As is said in a paragraph from the book of the V&A exhibition:
‘David Jones grew up in 1950s London dreaming of being a successful entertainer. As David Bowie he tried, tried very hard, and became a world-famous performer. In the process he helped establish a key part of Western twenty-first century liberal belief: that anybody should be allowed to be they want to be. Self before duty, with duty a choice. He did not invent the idea, but he did promote it to a huge audience. The marketing worked and the London of today, ethnically diverse, culturally open and relatively tolerant, is an ongoing testament to that belief. In the remaining years of this century there are plenty of groups for whom such a culture in anathema. It will be interesting to see how this journey, which started in Brixton, London SW9, continues to unfold’
Geoffrey Marsh, Exhibition Curator in David Bowie Is catalogue.
It’s been a long, wet, miserably dull December and now Christmas is over, here’s something bright and colourful to illuminate the darkness.
It’s an art installation called …—… SOS (the name will make sense if you watch the video) which is the third, and final, year of artist Bruce Monro’s installations at Waddesdon Manor. I’ve been impressed by the first two (and I think probably posted about them on this blog) but I absolutely loved this one (note the video contains flashing lights).
It’s a circuit of 167 tents set in the gardens, all lit in synchronised, changing colors to a soundtrack that was apparently inspired by the artist’s memories of listening to a transistor radio on camping holidays.
The soundtrack is fantastic — there’s three minutes of it in my YouTube clip. It’s mainly snippets of popular music from the last 40 years (Fleetwood Mac to Loose Fit), although there’s some classical and random bits of what sounds like Radio 4 (there’s certainly the shipping the forecast and the Today programme’s infamous racing selections).
I could have crawled into a tent and listened to it all night.
It’s a real serendipitous mix and exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to Kim in my novel — the bold, primary colours, the repurposing of clips of well-know songs and the esoteric weirdness of the spoken sections.
Sadly the exhibition has finished now but enjoy the video. Happy New Year.
I caught the start of one of those property ogling TV programmes yesterday. A pair of high-flying lawyers wanted to move out of their flat overlooking St. Paul’s to live a life of bucolic bliss in the New Forest. While the female of the couple wanted a huge kitchen and reception rooms to entertain friends in (i.e. show off their house), the male partner wistfully imagined a life where he’d grow a few vegetables in the garden, stroll down to the village shop on a Saturday morning for a paper and occasionally visit the village pub for a Sunday lunch.
It was all perfectly achievable for their property budget of £1.5m. It’s ironic that the local businesses that they imagine happily serving them with their Telegraph and roast beef probably need a lot more custom than the occasional weekend visit to continue their effect on buttressing property prices. Properties in villages with shops and pubs will have a significantly higher value than those in dead, commuter dormitories — but the people who can afford those prices often work during the week elsewhere.
Nevertheless, this is another demonstration of the way the local pub is so ingrained into the country’s collective consciousness. Even people who barely venture inside a pub (and the busiest pubs are the likes of cavernous Wetherspoons these days) cherish the idea of the welcoming, thatched local on the village green with its lovable eccentrics at the bar.
In fact, as David Cameron recently proved, the idyll of the English pub and its pint of foaming brown ale extends well beyond these shores. It’s often reported that foreign tourists put the experience of visiting a pub near the top of their to-do lists when visiting this country. And one of the most high profile overseas visitors of them all got his wish last month visiting a pub just up the road from me.
As was widely reported, Chinese President Xi was taken on a brief visit by our Prime Minister to the Plough in Cadsden.
The Plough gained some notoriety a few years ago as the pub where David Cameron left his daughter behind in the toilets after a lunchtime visit from his nearby country house retreat, Chequers.
This autumn the Plough can justifiably lay claim to the title of most famous pub in the world given the brief visit’s huge coverage in the Chinese media — and also in many other countries.
It seems the Chinese leader had been determined to sample what must be known in China as two of Britain’s great traditions — fish and chips and a drink in a pub. Of course the traditional way of eating fish and chips is out of newspaper with the grease soaking into your palms so perhaps it was diplomatic to combine the two in the pub visit. However, it’s certainly not a British tradition to eat a tiny portion out of a wire basket at the bar.
Nevertheless, the starter-sized portion of President Xi’s fish and chips has now gone on the menu permanently in the Plough. In the weeks after his visit, coach parties of Chinese visitors pitched up at the pub to sample this rather non-traditional method of serving the national speciality.
Equally significantly, the visit has led to British real ale becoming a much sought after drink in China, with demand for Greene King IPA after the Chinese leader drank a pint in the pub. (A regular beer at the pub is local brewery Rebellion’s IPA — perhaps David Cameron steered clear of that particular brew given his company?)
Like many other pubs in the Chilterns, the Plough has featured as a picture-postcard hostelry in many different television programmes, notably Midsomer Murders. In fact, what’s probably Inspector Barnaby’s most frequently visited pub, The Lions of Bledlow, is only a few mies down the road, also nestling against the foothills of the Chilterns.
Midsomer Murders is an exceptionally popular programme internationally, particularly in Scandinavia, and is another example of how the rest of the world is fascinated by the British pub.
And it’s not surprising why anyone with even a passing interest in the culture of this country should be interested in experiencing life in the pub. Other countries have their wonderful cafes, restaurants, bars and other meeting places but with the possible exception of Ireland, where pubs still seem to provide a subtly different function, it’s difficult to think of an institution quite as casually inclusive, socially democratic and (usually) community focused as the pub.
It’s not even a pre-requisite to drink alcohol — I’ve gone into Wetherspoons during the day and had a cup of coffee and, at the other end of the scale, the likes of Tom Kerridge (whose pubs in Marlow are not that far away from The Plough and Lions of Bledlow above) have made pub food a Michelin starred but (by most accounts) without throwing out the pub experience completely.
It’s little wonder that the pub is a central feature in many dramas — the Bull in Ambridge, the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic are central to their respective soaps — but there’s many other examples of pubs of all varieties in sit-coms and other dramas in — the Nag’s Head in Only Fools and Horses and the period seventies The Railway Arms in Life on Mars come to mind — both as far away from the bucolic Lions of Bledlow as it’s possible to imagine.
There’s an equally long tradition of pubs in literature — stretching back to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — although many pubs are better known for authors’ real-life drinking than their fictional representations. Possibly the most famous modern fictional pub is the Moon Under Water — George Orwell’s description in an article for the Evening Standard of the elusive ideal pub.
In novel writing terms, a pub offers countless opportunities for characters to meet, information to be passed on and conflict to arise. It can also introduce the community in which the protagonists exist — and also make a large contribution to establishing the culture and ethos of that fictional world.
And anyone who’s spent some time around the pubs of London and other large British cities — or has opened a weekend newspaper food and drink or travel supplement — can’t fail to have noticed the new-found fashionability of ‘craft beer’ and the trendy pubs that serve (and often brew) it.
The craft beer phenomenon has been building for a few years but craft or artisanal beer has become so popular that Time Out devoted most of a recent issue to London’s breweries — which are often located in hipster hotspots like Hackney Wick, Cambridge Heath or Bethnal Green (see photos of the Crate Brewery on the canal in Hackney Wick).
With the likes of Brewdog opening bars across London and elsewhere (I visited the new one in Soho last week), pubs are no longer best known for their links to tradition and the past but for being as much part of the cultural Zeitgeist as street art and thickets of facial hair.
And as plenty of the new breweries and pubs are producing excellent beer then this popularity is likely to continue. However, I can’t say my ‘unfiltered’ pint from the Crate Brewery pictured below is one of the best examples I’ve drunk recently.
When I started writingThe Angel it may have seemed odd that Kim, an uber-hip street artist (and uber is a word that’s recently taken on a new meaning) would be an expert in beer, working in a pub and having an intimate knowledge of how beer is brewed. Now it’s clear Kim’ was ahead of the trend, being into beer and brewing before the typical Shoreditch hipster — not that she’d care about being the height of uber-cool.
Shoreditch was in the news last weekend when the organisers of the ‘Fuck Parade’ pelted the Cereal Killer Café at the hipster end of Brick Lane with ‘paint and cereal’. This must be one of the first times that Cornflakes and Rice Krispies have been drafted in as ammunition in a class war protest against gentrification and the reach of global capitalism!
For those who don’t know, Cereal Killer Café attracted notoriety in the media when it opened at the end of last year. Its unique selling proposition is simple: choose a cereal, put milk (or alternative on it) and an optional ‘topping’. Then hand over a fiver. (To be fair it’s not quite that expensive and there are some imported American cereals along with the Weetabix and Krave.)
The concept was seized upon as an example of the hubris of ironic artiness (quite possibly, even meta-irony where those responsible are making an ironic response to an ironic concept — otherwise known as ‘who’s actually taking the piss out of whom?’). ‘A bowl of Weetos? You’re havin’ a larf mate?’
It didn’t help that the two twin brothers who set up the café had the Shoreditch hipster image nailed: with their bushy beards and tattoos they looked like the archetypical ‘Shoreditch twat’ squared.
The protest’s organisers (if indeed, the protest is organised — this was Shoreditch) have been widely condemned for attacking an independent business that is, at worst, a gimmicky tourist-trap for those with more money than nutritional sense.
The real irony is that, for those who say they want to rally against gentrification and the change in the area’s character, there’s something to properly protest about within fifty yards of Cereal Killer’s doors.
I took the photograph above last week on Sclater Street, which leads from Shoreditch High Street station to Brick Lane — Cereal Killer is in the block behind the mechanical digger. Despite the street art on the hoardings, this space is being turned into a development called The Fusion. The cheapest apartment in The Fusion is a mere £757,500 (you get all of one bedroom for that plus a fitted Smeg fridge). The hipsters in Cereal Killer would need to sell a lot of Frosties to afford to move into one of those.
Not that the developers are targeting the Shoreditch arty set who have created the ‘buzz’ that makes these new apartment blocks so lucrative — if the flats are inhabited at all (rather than kept as empty investments by overseas buyers) their occupants will no doubt be making the 10 minute commute to the heart of the City rather than to some loft studio. (See previous post for more details of developments in the pipeline.)
The very deep excavations that can be viewed through the security fence show the scale of the development — is this for a garage or maybe an underground gym or swimming pool?
It’s this development and the many others like it that represent the threat to the character of the area. As soon as they’re completed, they will radically change Shoreditch in ways that go way beyond gentrification. The developers’ marketing material even contains the following: ‘Shoreditch is becoming more and more affluent and even being labelled as the ‘New Bond Street,’ plus it is a great location for City commuters’.
I took the photo below in May last year on a street art tour. We’re standing on the old car park that has been excavated in the image above — the London Clay that has been the foundation of the area dug up and dumped somewhere else, replaced with an empty void.
The walls of the adjoining building were a popular site for street artists — they’re just about visible now through the security fences but will soon be obscured by steel and concrete. The Shoreditch of my novel is fast becoming history.
Around this time of year, back in 2012, I wrote a number of blog posts that were tangentially-related to my writing, celebrated that London felt like it was the centre of the world due to hosting the Olympics and Paralympics. (Imho London carried this off so successfully that in the intervening three years, the city seems to have consolidated, if anything, its hold on the title of global capital.)
One of the least successful aspects of the Olympics was the disastrous system of ticket allocation (something the coming Rugby World Cup appears not to have learned lessons from). Although I made it to the Olympic Park, I didn’t get inside the stadium itself.
I’ve visited the local area many times since access to the Queen Elizabeth Park (as the old Olympic Park is now called) has allowed public access — mostly because it’s a pleasant walk between two excellent brewpubs, Tap East in the Westfield shopping centre and the Crate Brewing Company in the White Building by the Regent’s Canal in Hackney Wick.
This weekend I finally managed to get inside — in one one of the first events since the stadium’s post-Olympic reconstruction.
The occasion was a friendly rugby game between the Barbarians and Samoa (one of the latter’s warm-up games before the World Cup). We have to hope a few teething problems are ironed out before the start of the tournament — the sprinkling system was unexpectedly deployed during the match on my visit, much to the embarrassment of the ground staff.
The stadium has been remodelled for a smaller capacity, down from 80,000 to 54,000, and there have been some substantial changes, particularly in expanding the roof and retaining the distinctive, original, triangular floodlight structures but inverting them below roof level.
I’ve visited most of the comparable new stadiums — Wembley, Old Trafford, the O2 — and the Olympic Stadium (or The Stadium, Queen Elizabeth Park as it’s officially known — are they waiting for sponsorship?) proved a more pleasant experience with less claustrophobic concrete and, because the pitch area is a sunken bowl, the access and hospitality areas seem lighter and less congested.
However, with West Ham going to make the stadium their home in under a year and the Rugby World Cup approaching, I wonder (as would James in my novel) where the fans are going to congregate around this area of idealistic, futuristic design when they want a few drinks. There are a couple of chain pubs in Westfield in addition to the marvellous (but small) Tap East — nothing likely to satiate up to 58,000 tribal drinkers.
No wonder NaNoWriMo (see last post) is held in November. Getting 5,000 words down, let alone 50,000, in December would be a challenge for me. I wonder whether all writers regard December as a month to (apologies for the pun) write-off.
Writers are notorious for finding displacement activities as a way of putting off sitting down at a desk and starting the hard work of putting words on the page. Suddenly tasks like ironing, filling in your tax return or going to the supermarket all acquire an attractive urgency compared with doing what you supposedly aspire to make your vocation. (I’m told this affects all writers — probably more so for those who make their livings writing as then writing equals the dreaded four letter word that begins with W.)
But December is something else again — all that precious time you normally manage to find by clearing time at weekends, grabbing the odd couple of hours on a weekday evening or even a little scribbling on the train is mercilessly elbowed aside by the extra demands of the festive season.
Like most people I’ve been up to my eyes in shopping, putting up decorations and, of course, lots of socialising. I’ve tried to convince myself that some of that socialising counts as writing-related, such as the excellent Word Factory Christmas party that I attended with Guy from the City course.
Unlike most Word Factory events, where I’ve listened to writers as diverse as Alexei Sayle, A.L. Kennedy and my own second year MA tutor, Nicholas Royle, the floor is open at the Christmas party for readings from the Word Factory audience and there were some excellent short stories read at the event by their authors, including those from friends Isabel Costello and Pete Domican (who were much braver than me by putting their names into the hat — maybe next year for me).
I’ve also tried to convince myself that, because food plays a large part in the novel, that all the time I’ve spent preparing mountains of home-cooked food for Christmas will contribute
as research time — that I’m connecting myself to the tastes, aromas and textures of food preparation. Perhaps there’s a case for this when I’m kneading out the dough for stollen, spicing some slow-cooked red cabbage or getting my hands up to my elbows in a mixing bowl of herby stuffing mixture but there doesn’t seem much inspiration to be found in peeling King Edwards at one in the morning (writers’ block would need to be rather severe for that to be a displacement activity).
The novel also follows the rhythms of the English countryside’s changing seasons of the best part of a year — the principal characters meet in late summer, experience a few chills and blasts over winter and then burst into new life in the spring. So it’s surely for research purposes that I made my own version of the bottled essence of summer that is traditional sloe gin. The prickly business of picking over a hedgerow on a fine, early October day, gathering a couple of kilos of
the tiny purple fruits certainly gives time to meditate on the shortening days and ripening of the harvest. And the periodic shaking of the steeped liquid through early winter heightens the anticipation of its eventual bottling at the end of the year when it takes on a gorgeous deep red hue. It certainly warms you up inside when you drink it so it’s best drunk in small quantities– mine lasted until the start of Lent last year. Maybe a small slug of the 2014 vintage will kick off my writing at the start of 2015?
December is also a time for visiting family and most of mine are quite a distance away. I may have mentioned on the blog previously that I originally come from the Lancashire side South Pennines in a town hemmed in by hills. Virtually every upward glance would take in the ‘wily, windy moors’ that provided inspiration for a surprising number of great writers and poets, the most local being Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and, of course, the Brontë sisters. My theory is that the wild and desolate landscape represents forces of nature that can’t be conquered or subjugated by civilisation and they’re also a potent metaphor for the subconscious.
While visiting the north a few days ago I took the opportunity to revisit the Brontë Parsonage Museum (bizarrely driving about fifteen miles of the route of this summer’s Tour de France — the roads are still marked with slogans encouraging Wiggo and company). It’s a fascinating museum cataloguing the family’s life. But for me the highlight was standing in the dining room.
Maybe it’s something innately writerly but I felt transfixed in an almost religious experience when I read that this was the room where both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were written, probably side-by-side at the dining table. I know Jane Eyre intimately, having studied it at school and written a dissertation on the novel and early feminism in the first year at university. To witness where the books were created (and the room is largely preserved as it was at the time) helps develop an understanding of the process of writing.
But perhaps my most tenuous piece of research was to investigate setting up a possibly lucrative sideline in Scandi-noir. At the start of December I spent the weekend in Stockholm. It was a bit crazy really — flying out first thing on Saturday and returning
Sunday night — spending about 34 hours in the city. I’d been there a few times before in my previous job (and got to know a few Swedes quite well) but a visit in December, when the light starts to fail about two in the afternoon and doesn’t return until about nine the next morning, helps to explain why the Scandinavians are particularly good at the dark side of fiction.
The northern Europeans have a reputation of doing Christmas ‘properly’ — with Germany’s Christmas markets being so popular that they’re popping up all over London — and the
Frankfurt market that takes over Birmingham city centre is phenomenally successful. (This welcoming of other countries’ customs is another reason why I believe the British aren’t Eurosceptics at heart.)
Sweden celebrates Christmas in a way that doesn’t appear brashly commercialised — with its own traditions such as baking saffron bread and celebrating St. Lucia’s day around a
fortnight before Christmas. I visited the most famous Christmas market in Stockholm, at the Skansen open air museum, which was a relatively rustic affair with open log fires and arts and crafts and reindeer meat stalls.
Stockholm itself is a beautiful city and would provide plenty of inspiration for writers. The Vasa, an incredibly well-preserved 17th century battleship that was lifted from Stockholm harbour, is jaw-dropping when first sighted in its museum and would provide all kinds of period inspiration for historical and nautical sagas.
Another theme of the novel is looking at this country (and London, which is arguably a unique place in itself) through the eyes of a European. There’s immense insight to be gained in seeing how other countries celebrate festivals — the better to understand the unique aspects of our own.
Kim in the novel is a devoted anglophile who thinks her excellence at spoken English and several years living in London means she understands the country completely but her German logic is occasionally confounded by the sheer eccentricity of the British.
While I witnessed it much too late to go into the novel, I’d have
loved to write Kim’s fictional reaction to a traditional mummers’ play performed by local morris side, the Owlswick Morris, in my local pub on Boxing Day.
Mummers’ plays date back to the middle-ages as they are very
loosely based on the crusades. When I was at school we performed a Lancashire version at Easter called the Pace-Egg play. I was the Prince of Paladine and had to have a swordfight with St. Andrew, as I remember.
The version performed by Owlswick Morris gave a few more nods to contemporary sensibilities and featured, among others, Father Christmas (not principally known for crusading through the Levant) who was played by a woman and a cross-dressing St. George.
The top-hatted doctor, whose resurrection skills make him one of the most recurring characters, fortunately made an appearance to revive slain Slasher. (Who knows, he might be an early precursor of Doctor Who?).
I can see the slapstick elements of the mummers’ play appealing to Kim’s German sense of humour but I imagine she’d still be puzzling out how to interpret it several days later.
And thinking of Kim, whom my RNA reader described as a ‘great character and an unusual and original heroine’, I came across the beer in Utobeer in Borough Market that I mentioned a year or so ago on the blog was presciently appropriate for her — Redchurch Brewery‘s Shoreditch Blonde. (Not so much for the hair colour but because at the start of the novel she works in a pub near Shoreditch and her expertise with beer puts her at the vanguard of the recent popularity of craft beer. Redchurch Street in Shoreditch is also a place where she’d get out her spray cans and create her street art.)
I didn’t have a choice but to buy a bottle to open on a special occasion (like Kim, it’s sophisticated and not cheap). So what better time than New Year’s Eve?
Here’s a toast to Kim, and all my other characters, and to hope they help make 2015 a very special year. And a happy New Year to all my blog readers and best wishes for all your plans and endeavours (writing or otherwise) in the year ahead. Let’s hope it’s a good one.
My last blog post, about my happy experiences with the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), was read by several of the committee of the RNA itself and they were so interested in the post and my thoughts on the scheme that I was granted the unlikely honour of writing a post for the RNA’s own blog.
The blog is updated twice weekly on a Tuesday and Friday and covers a wide range of topics of interest to the RNA with contributions from many well-known and highly respected writers.
My post, titled ‘Romance — “A Bloke’s Point of View”‘ covers similar points to the one I posted on this blog but the content is completely new — and starts with a little taster of how the characters in my novel might react if I walked into their local pub, The Angel, and announced I was a member of the RNA NWS.
Read it (and all the other fascinating posts) by following this link. If you’d like to add a comment or ask a question on there then that would be great.
As part of my membership of the NWS I get sent their newsletter, Romance Matters. The latest issue contains some very intriguing articles based on sessions at the RNA conference.
One considers how effective fiction works by triggering chemical responses in the brain that are identical to those in real, physical situations (e.g. desire, fear) — releasing oxytocin, adrenaline and so on. Another, quoting a session by author and academic Catherine Roach (who writes as Catherine LaRoche), discusses the psychological benefits to the reader of the romance narrative — suggesting that traditional romantic plot types work because of their empowering effect on readers, which, for the purposes of the argument, were assumed to be women. If female readers feel relatively disempowered and disenfranchised in society in comparison to men then the heroine redresses the balance, achieving happiness and fulfillment through risking her vulnerability and being true to herself. ‘The romance story is a woman-centred fantasy about how to make this man’s world work for her.’
It’s all really thought-provoking analysis, and as with my RNA NWS readers’ report, has provided me some with some intriguing insight when I’ve applied it to my own novel. I also found via Google that Catherine Roach has also published a feminist-orientated academic work called Stripping, Sex and Popular Culture(available as a free pdf download) which is very relevant to one plot strand of my novel — not wanting to let slip any spoilers I’ll say no more than that.
Warning: contains a few set-list spoilers and lengthy, unrestrained, gushing sentimentality and a few misty-eyed personal reminiscences.
We knew we were on Row E — so good seats — five rows back, obviously. So we counted backwards as we walked through the stalls K…J…H…I…H…G…F…E
Er, what’s happened to A, B, C and D? This must be wrong. This can’t be happening to us. And then the people in the adjacent seats said they’d thought the same too.
There must be another row E in the stalls somewhere — one that isn’t really right in front of the stage — one that isn’t only feet from where Kate Bush would be standing in half-an-hour’s time for her second performance in 35 years.
What my friend Andrew didn’t know (and I guess no-one else did either) was that when he’d hit the enter on the day of the Kate Bush fan pre-sale was that the Hammersmith Eventim Apollo’s seat rows A-D were to be removed to accommodate the unusually demanding theatrical requirements of the exactingly perfectionist performer.
The need for the larger stage was revealed during the show with numerous trap-doors and pieces of stage machinery concealed beneath. At one point Kate Bush herself must have crawled under the stage virtually opposite my feet (I won’t give the explanation — it would be a big spoiler). I was also close enough to fear at one point that I’d be whacked in the head by a strange, rotating musical instrument.
I was in seat 14 — about four seats to the left of dead centre — which puts me in very select company. However, from the reaction of everyone else to discovering the true location of Row E, it seems they also applied for the tickets as normal fans. So no music festival style VIP-only cordon by the stage for Kate Bush. However, I’m sure all of us lucky enough to get hold of any tickets at all through the booking process (even the fan-sale) felt very privileged indeed.
Apologies if my (or, more accurately, my friend’s) extraordinary good fortune is provoking any raging jealousy (it certainly would with me) but it goes to show that Kate Bush see,s to have prioritised her fans — while expensive the tickets weren’t the sort of Russian oligarch prices that she could have charged — and the reselling sites are actually trying to charge. (Buyer beware — ID is checked against tickets on entry.)
Also the production itself must have been orders of magnitude more expensive to stage than a conventional rock concert. The only equivalents in musical theatrically I can think of are Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the Beatles-based LOVE in Las Vegas. The latter was brilliant but, of course, the singers and the band weren’t playing live.)
I have virtually every piece of music she’s ever released — and I’ve been listening to it on shuffle for the past two weeks. And not just the albums but vinyl single B-sides and bizarre CD single curiosities like Ken — with lyrics asking if the former GLC leader is a ‘funky sex machine’ (really).
I was wondering if she’d keep the local London political theme going with the comeback but, sadly, Boris was missing from the set-list (if you’re reading this Kate, there’s still time to dash it off).
And, as my post on the perceptive analysis in Under the Ivy points out, Kate Bush’s music has been a big influence on my writing (he adds, remembering that this is — loosely — a blog about writing). It’s also been the soundtrack to certain very significant episodes in my life.
I’m sure the number of female characters in my novel or and my attempts at writing from a female point of view have been heavily influenced by the extraordinarily insights that Kate Bush’s music and lyrics provide into female perspective, notably in songs like Hounds of Love, Running Up That Hill. Similarly, I also might not have had the nerve to go into certain territory in the novel that deals with the closeness ‘between a man and a woman’ without following Kate Bush’s courageous example in those amazingly intimate songs on the second side of The Kick Inside.
This isn’t just a male perception, I know her themes resonate deeply with many women. My sister was sitting next to me during the show and she was incredibly moved to be there in the presence of a woman who’d been a huge influence on her life.
There are several slightly buried Kate Bush references in my novel – one from The Dreaming was picked up straight away by fellow Kate Bush fanatic, Anne, from the MMU course. (Anne’s going to be fortunate enough to see the show in a couple of weeks). And there may be other subconscious influences: I now wonder if an inspiration for having a painter in the novel is down to side two of Aerial. If so, thanks Kate for opening the windows to me about the world of art.
To reinfoce the point that Kate Bush’s music has long been part of my life, as well as my sister, I went to the concert with two ex-school friends.
I remember sitting in my bedroom with my friend David on holiday from university discussing The Hounds of Love, especially The Big Sky 12″ Meteorological Mix — ‘That cloud looks like industrial waste!’ being one of her lesser known lyrics. I remember moaning, pre-Hounds of Love about the interminable wait for her next album — it turned out to be three years — perhaps the 35 years I had to wait to see her live has served me right for my ungratefulness?
Kate Bush’s most profound effect on me — and something that’s likely to be very deeply ingrained — was when I studied for a year at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Just before I flew out to the US Running Up That Hill, which I loved, had very recently been released. But the album Hounds of Love hadn’t. At that time Kate had only achieved cult recognition in America — a sort of indie, student act. While Hounds of Love was becoming a huge seller in the UK, it hadn’t even been released in the US, where I couldn’t get hold of it. This was, of course, before the days of the internet, iTunes and even the post could take two weeks to arrive. I was desperate to listen to the album that I’d waited (I thought then) for so long to be released.
I was pretty homesick, at times, with the culture shock when I first arrived in California and the American lack of appreciation of Kate Bush’s genius probably made me even more miserable. But a few weeks after the UK release and after I’d kept visiting the record shops in Isla Vista to keep asking when it would arrive (I think they’ve all shut now), the album was quietly released in the US. I got hold of a cassette version — and played it incessantly.
Kate Bush was so brilliantly, beautifully eccentrically English. Whenever I missed home, I’d play Hounds of Love and,Running Up That Hill in particular — and it would make everything about England seem so much more reassuringly close. Eventually the album broke through in the US in a modest way and Kate Bush’s videos were played on MTV (although they used the Wogan show appearance of Running Up That Hill rather than the apparently over-erotic dance video).
With many other British bands becoming popular in America at that time, in our apartment MTV was a frequent reminder of home — with videos like Dream Academy’s Life in a Northern Town (‘the north’),Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love for You (London) and Shout by Tears for Fears (Durdle Door in Dorset) almost like mini-travelogues.
There are many other Kate Bush related memories, like sitting with a girlfriend at university at the end of Nic Roeg’s film Castaway (I think I must have read in the reviews about its copious nudity) when a very familiar voice began singing an unknown song — Be Kind to My Mistakes — still very obscure. ‘Sit down. We can’t move. It’s Kate Bush’. I’m not sure she was thrilled as me about staying all the way through the closing credits. Or the first time I heard King of the Mountain — the first new song to be released in 13 years. I was driving but I welled up — ‘Sounds a bit odd. Mumbled. Hold on. I like those drums. It’s good. It’s bloody good. She’s back. She’s back and she’s still good.’
And on Wednesday she was standing right in front of me. No one else was in the space between me and the person who’d created the music — and images — that had affected and influenced me so profoundly. At fleeting points in the performance I must have been the closest person to her. (My coat, which I’d left against the bottom of the stage, was suddenly covered by one of the props during one section and I was worried it would get dragged on stage by accident).
For the whole audience, being in the presence of Kate Bush was an overwhelming experience in itself – throughout the show you didn’t have to look far to spot people in floods of tears. We were close enough to see every expression on her face – and rather suffering stage fright, as had been the fear, she appeared humbled and genuinely surprised by the spontaneous standing ovation when she first walked on stage.
One of the strange aspects of the recent media coverage of the concerts is that virtually all the images used of Kate Bush have been those taken in her twenties. This might be unsurprising because there have been extraordinarily few photographs of her in the past 20 years – a few very artfully created portraits for the CDs and less than a handful of ‘real life’ photos – the most recent being when she received her CBE from the Queen last year.
It’s been rumoured that she’s now very self-conscious about her appearance but she didn’t give any indication that she was. Nor ought she to be – she looked wonderful. Of course, she wasn’t going to be in rolling on a mat in a leotard. At 56, she appears to have aged gracefully and while she wore bulky outfits, she certainly doesn’t look, close up, as if she has any weight problem at all (some newspaper columnists and reviewers ought not to base their comments on concert photos or observing from a distance).
She did the show barefoot and her feet were occasionally within theoretical touching distance. When David’s wife Sue (who was in the circle) asked if Kate’s toenails were painted I was able to say without hesitation that they were’t. After all, I’d been looking at them for nearly three hours. I was so close to her physically that I could even see the thin plaits she had woven into her famously thick hair and trickles of sweat glistening on her temples.
Remarking on her physical closeness isn’t meant to be weirdly obsessive and stalker-like – all the people I know who’ve seen the concerts and everyone who’s tweeted has said similar. But this was someone who been in a huge, life-sized poster on my bedroom wall throughout my final year at university. She was stepping out of the page and into the sensual world. What was the biggest privilege of being so close to the performance is that I’ll no longer think of Kate Bush in terms of the images of quarter of a century ago – as a two dimensional icon – but as a person who’s as real and tangible as someone I might bump into in the pub or on the tube.
I’ve read some comments on Twitter comparing the show to a religious experience. I can see why — the emotion was so overwhelming it was physical for me and, I’m sure, for most of the rest of the audience. However, in my case, it was the opposite of religious — the icon we’d all only known from music and images was manifested as a ‘normal’ person — albeit one recognisable from all the images and able to sing with that beautiful voice. She might be a creative genius but she’s actually just like the rest of us — a point so obvious it’s banal to make about most artists. But this was supposedly the music industry’s eccentric recluse, someone whom I don’t think has given a TV interview in over 20 years.
I’d kept lowering my expectations before the show – and the moments between the band arriving on stage and Kate Bush herself were heart-pounding, as much with dread as anticipation. Surely she’d only be able to use the lower registers of her voice and the songs would sound OK but not a patch the records?
Lily, the opening number, seemed to have been chosen to as a vocal warm-up her voice – short, low phrases with the backing singers in full-throated support. But she sounded amazingly good. Then it was straight into Hounds of Love – much earlier than I’d expected but also a low-pitched vocal. Suddenly, the fourth song, Top of the City, its slow passages sung with heart-melting softness (‘he’s no good for you, baby, he’s no good for you now’) alternating with soaring, climactic high-notes. Her voice was sounded, incredibly, as good as the original recordings.
In her own lengthy programme notes, which are remarkably personal and detailed (longer, even, than this blog post), it’s revealed that there’s a sound engineer solely dedicated to her vocal sound. But I was close enough at times to hear her voice unamplified and it was genuine – no auto-tune for Kate Bush.
Vocally, Kate Bush is one of a kind and the second public live performance of songs I knew so well was an experience I never expected to occur at all, let alone witness myself. What was even more extraordinary was that Kate appeared very conscious of the audience’s response. She’s by no means an in-your-face stage performer and her facial expressions and small gestures to the band won’t have been obvious from the back of the theatre. She grinned in a deadpan way at the start of the show, almost appearing awestruck by the audience’s ecstatic reception (as if gesturing ‘Are these people really going beserk for me? They are? This is unbelievable. Well, here I go.’)
She was subtly looked at people in the audience, even making eye contact after which she’d smile, rock her head from side to side, move her feet a bit more emphatically and then deliver another astonishingly perfect vocal. It was if she was asking ‘Are you enjoying this? Am I doing OK? That’s good. Now I’m really going to go for it.’ Perhaps lots of famous performers do this if you get close enough. But, as she expressed with her the request for no cameras, this low-key but emphatic connection with the audience was an amazingly intimate experience. (Later, in the conceptual parts of the show, she concentrated on acting in character.)
I’d expect most of the looks she got in return would along the lines of ‘Yes, you’re doing brilliantly, Kate, and by the way you’re a bloody genius’. I was trying to convey as much. But her modesty and initial tentativeness provided an insight into the creative process – the greatest artists are also generally the most self-critical and depend and thrive and on the reassurance of their audience. This is particularly performers but no doubt also includes many writers too. It was a profoundly humbling experience — feeling as if Kate Bush was looking at me, checking that I enjoying the show she’d put so much effort into staging. I’m sure she felt the same about the other 3,000 people there but these were moments of absolute individual pleasure.
I won’t go dwell on detail about the theatrics of the show – there are many glowing news reports and reviews on the web. And the spectacle is so impressive that’s it’s better to let the narrative play out itself.
With tickets for the second night I’d managed to avoid knowing too much detail about the show until I’d seen it for myself. I’d largely avoideded knowledge of the set-list (so I was one of those who gasped when the opening chords to Running Up That Hill appeared so early in the show). I bought the excellent programme but I’d avoided reading it before the show. So I had no idea that the very young, gangly backing singer who appeared to take an increasingly more prominent part in the show was someone with particular significance.
In the rocking-living-room-HP-sauce-and-toad-in-the-hole interlude (it’s too bizarre to concisely describe and the dialogue probably won’t win a Booker Prize for David Mitchell), my sister asked ‘Do you think that’s her son?’
‘No,’ I thought. ‘It can’t be.’ After all, his existence was secret until she sang exultantly about him in Bertie on Ariel — when he was about eight years old. But then he did seem to be the right sort of age and he did look very similar to those photos of Kate Bush’s brothers from the start of her career – and the way she stood behind him looking enormously proud as he lolled on a sofa mulling out loud whether to watch QI or Liverpool v Chelsea on the television? It was indeed ‘that son of mine’.
With that discovery, everything suddenly made sense. The woman who wrote songs like Breathing, the Kick Inside, Room for the Life, Cloudbusting, Mother Stands for Comfort, A Coral Room and This Woman’s Work– all about birth and parenthood – wanted the audience to share her enormous pride in her own son. That this intensely private artist wanted to introduce her audience to her family was an incredible gesture of bonding. This is why I’ve been quiet for the last sixteen years – he’s been the priority in my life – and isn’t he wonderful? She was inviting us to celebrate her music and her family – this woman’s work indeed.
Without Bertie, we now know from the programme, ‘this would never have happened’ and he was the force who ensured his mother overcame her fear to ‘commit to pushing the “go” button’. The timing of the shows must also have been determined by Bertie’s involvement – albeit in a very non-rock’n’roll way.
As his mother writes in the programme: ‘In order for him to be part of this, which was always part of the deal, he has had to work really hard in order to keep up his school commitments as well as his commitments to the show.’ So it’s fair to assume that the rehearsals will have been timed to start after Bertie finished his GCSEs in the summer. Presumably he’ll go back to studying for his A-levels after the last show on 1st October.
One of Kate Bush’s most haunting opening lines is in Blow Away (for Bill) on Never For Ever — take a look at the cover of that album and it will clear up any doubts about her recurrent themes of female sexuality and motherhood: ‘One of the band told me last night/That music is all that he’s got in his life.’
These shows, and their incredible gestation time, are perhaps a sign that she took that lyric as a warning. Music isn’t all Kate Bush had had in her life. Given Bertie’s role, these live shows haven’t been half a lifetime in coming – they’ve been staged at the earliest possible opportunity.
As Graeme Thomson says in Under the Ivy what’s particularly remarkable about Kate is ‘the extraordinarily positive ways in which Bush views men’ — and she brought on stage the man she’d brought into the world herself (or, at Bertie’s age, more the Man with the Child in Eyes). This was another profound statement about creativity — and one that seems to tie in with the otherwise rather baffling wooden puppet-mannequin that roamed the stage in the second half.
Bertie’s involvement isn’t cheesy or sentimental either. If anything he was a more confident performer than his admiring mother. Being so close to a sixteen year old acting out the role of the painter in A Sky of Honey, in which he sang his own song, Tawny Moon, (I don’t whether Bertie or his mum wrote it — but she wrote some classic songs at thirteen), made me forget I was at such a momentous event. Willing Bertie to pull off such a professional performance was, bizarrely, like being, in the nicest possible way, one the audience at a school play – albeit the most incredibly imaginative, spectacular one ever.
I found an interview from 2005 on the Guardian’s website in which Kate Bush describes how Bertie reacted to the news that his mother was going to meet the Queen: ‘The thing is I would do anything for Bertie and making an arsehole of myself in front of a whole roomful of people and the Queen, I mean …’
In front of Wednesday’s roomful of people she certainly didn’t do that.
Incidentally, the request not to use cameras applied to the actual performance (see below). The security people were perfectly happy for people to take pictures before and after the show. Even so, I’ve cropped some of the images to avoid revealing anything more than the musical instruments on stage you’d expect from a conventional show. While I could have taken a photo of Kate that was much closer up than anything that’s been published I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing so – let alone posting it online.
My novel is set partly in London (the City and über cool Shoreditch) where you only have to walk down the street or take a bus to realise there’s an abundance of non-native inhabitants.
And it doesn’t need a UKIP party political broadcast to point out that the recent changes in the population of London and the consequent changes in its character are particularly linked to rights of free movement within the European Union and its expansion eastwards.
One of my main characters, Kim, is a proud German but also an equally proud Londoner and thorough Anglophile — and she’s happy to live in cosmopolitan London indefinitely. It’s the hub of her world as an artist — but the price of living at the centre is the huge expense.
Kim goes to live in the countryside and her adjustment to life outside London — in a symbolic ‘green and pleasant land’ — unfolds as a significant element of the novel’s narrative. Unlike London, with its diverse neighbourhoods and coexisting communities, Kim has to gradually assimilate into a more closed, conservative and less fragmented community, which nonetheless already hosts a large number of immigrants.
The storyline may resonate with the inevitable debate about Britain’s relationship with Europe which will rumble on for the next few years — as whatever the outcome of the election Europe is bound to be a very hot topic.
Given that I’m rather sceptical about the supposed mood of Euroscepticism in the country, I was intrigued by the reception given to Le Grand Départ — the start of that most continental of events. Over the last weekend the Tour de France staged what was effectively a takeover of large parts of Yorkshire and it rode into London on Monday.
How would the supposedly Eurosceptic British react to an invasion of foreigners spearheaded by the oldest enemy of them all? We loved it.
The road that connects Buckingham Palace with the Houses of Parliament — the axis of British government — was invadedon Monday by all things French — French TV cameras, banners in French, adverts for French supermarkets that we don’t even have in this country, the gendarmerie riding around London and even commentary in French relayed around the Mall and St. James’s Park. Surely this kind of thing would give Nigel Farage palpitations?
And the French invasion went right through London and beyond with the road to Tower Bridge sealed off because the French invasion procession was coming right past the Tower of London — look out for the crown jewels — and, as my photo shows, it caused huge disruption to the daily operation of the City of London.
Were those entire Cities financial types w ho deserted their offices en masse at 3.15pm on a busy Monday heading to the barricades to remonstrate with meddlesome Europeans whose garlic-fuelled bike ride was interfering with the pinnacle of human endeavour — swapping money from one account to the next at the speed of light?
Perhaps Nigel preferred the Tour de France to the tur din România (and if you thought I Google translated that you’d be dead right) and the little Englanders might be relieved the whole moving carnival would soon be back in the land of hundreds of fromages (hang on, isn’t that us too these days?) .
But actually the hordes of City evacuees — and the many spectators from office windows — weren’t objecting to the French incursion — they were celebrating. Because, as the Olympics also showed two years ago, there’s nothing more the British like than to welcome the rest of the world and lay on a rather good party.
London often provides the backdrop to the historic and exotic but this Tour de France was inspired because it also visited one of the most diehard conservative realms of the national consciousness — Yorkshire. ‘There’s nowt about thy fancy foreign ways that impresses me.’ And I can say that without much fear of being accused of regional stereotyping because I was brought up about three miles from the route of Stage 2.
On Sunday the cyclists pedalled through the landscape of my formative years — the foothills of the Pennines. I used to frequently walk on the bleak moors that mark the Lancashire-Yorkshire border (the landscape that inspired the Brontës, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath amongst others) and the aerial views of the hills, valleys and reservoirs between Haworth, Hebden Bridge and Ripponden looked forbiddingly beautiful on television.
I would have loved to have travelled up north for the race. The atmosphere amongst the 10,000 people who lined the route in the mile or so of the race where the route crossed on to the Lancashire side looked incredible – and what might not have been obvious from the television pictures was that, as the main roads were closed all day, the vast majority of the spectators in this section had to walk or cycle three miles, involving a near thousand feet vertical climb from the valley below.
I came across some amazing photographs on Facebook of Carrefour floats and French motorcycling gendarmes passing flag-waving crowds on roads in places so inhospitable that there are no houses for several miles (and these photos had bikes on them unlike mine — which failed to capture any cyclists due to various camera disasters). The crowds gathered only a couple of miles away from some of the most notoriously desolate peat bogs on the Pennine Way.
The landlady of the White House Inn, on Blackstone Edge — one of only two dwellings along a five mile stretch of the A58, remarked that the visit of the Tour de France ‘made me proud to be British‘.
This isn’t as bizarrely contradictory as it sounds – welcoming visitors is something the British take pride in – and is at odds with the rhetoric of the isolationists and Eurosceptics.
My fictional idyllic village has made many foreign residents feel very welcome — American art lecturers, Polish cooks, Indian techies and so on — and they play a full part in English country life.
While the Tour de France was a novelty and a spectacle it still showed a desire to engage with Europe – and even better if it was also an exercise in the indulgence of another typical British trait — celebrating an excuse to get drunk.
The caravan that travelled through Yorkshire and into the heart of London was a peculiar celebration of French and Yorkshire promotions — big Visit Yorkshire floats, motorised Fruit Shoots and a speeding Carrefour mountain.
The whole spectacle showed how the British embraced a temporarily transplanted icon of Europe in a way that Jeremy Deller might describe as celebrating ‘Joy in People’ — even if they were mostly French and on bikes.
Do you think the Tour de France confounded the Eurosceptic stereotypes — I’d love to read any comments below.
The last post loosely took the E.M.Forster quotation ‘only connect’ and asked if this might be at the basis of some of the creative process — can originality be fostered by stuffing your subconscious full of stimulating ideas and experiences which could stew away unsupervised like a warming winter casserole or, alternatively, blast into each other like a psychological Hadron collider.
Bearing this out, I’ve realised there’s a loosely recurring theme of odd and unusual connections in many of the experiences I’ve enjoyed or places I’ve visited over the past few months — locations which are on the margins between conflicted forces or genres where conventionally opposing styles or materials have been placed in opposition.
Shoreditch is the classic example of an area that has been transformed by the influence of artists, with the Village Underground tube train carriages providing a landmark juxtaposition.
It’s arguable that Shoreditch has become so ironically commercialised that it’s developing into a caricature of itself. For several years, artists have been priced out of the area (as is Kim in my novel), not just by the geek-cool spillover from David Cameron’s beloved ‘Tech City’ in Old Street but by speculative apartment-buying business types (even more beloved of Cameron).
The warehouse-squatting, loft-dwelling artists have been dispersed to Peckham (mentioned in Time Out virtually every week), Hackney Wick (whose artists ‘took over’ the V&A at the end of February) and rather bizarrely, as I discovered a few weeks ago, to suburbs like High Barnet.
I climbed four storeys up an external fire-escape with my friends from Love Art London way out in the hipster-there-be-dragons territory of zone 6 to visit the artist, David Shillinglaw. He was a thoroughly generous and entertaining host, welcoming us into his loft studio which was located in an old false-teeth making factory (if it was in a novel this detail would seem way too far-fetched!). The studio was an amazing jumble of finished artworks, pieces in progress, plants (the tree apparently belonged once to Bob Hoskins!), huge rubber balls, artists materials and cats plus everyday objects (I think he lived there too — David Shillinglaw, not Bob Hoskins).
While the artists move to the likes of Stoke Newington, Deptford and, er, High Barnet, property developers haven’t been slow to make the connection between exploiting the lingering aura of edgy cool and the large plots of under-exploited land in Shoreditch. Schemes that have been approved are in the pipeline that will transform the area irreparably: a 40 storey tower is to be built almost opposite Village Underground with a new shopping centre on the other side.
I may have written a partially historical novel by accident as I have scenes in my novel set in Holywell Street, which will be completely transformed within the next couple of years. (The scene is set in the road between the Village Underground tube trains and the new high rise building in the centre left in the developer’s projected image below.)
Speaking of developers trying to muscle-in (and, in so doing, destroy) on ‘cool’, ‘gritty’ urban locations, I took the photograph below just before Christmas of one of the most bizarre connections in London — the South Bank’s Bavarian Christmas market set opposite the graffiti-plastered undercroft of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, adopted as London’s skateboarders’ spiritual home.
Drinking steaming glühwein while watching skateboard jumps in a reclaimed space of brutalist architecture is the type of accidentally cosmopolitan experience only London can offer. Unlike some of the most favoured spots for Shoreditch street artists, the undercroft has been reprieved from development into shops.
There are a quite a few posts on this blog that mention street art: in the novel Kim brings her graffiti artist skills to places that haven’t traditionally welcomed them. Perhaps its appeal is partly because of another unusual combination — the traditionally reverential and formal world of fine art and the constantly changing, chaotic, almost anarchic urban spaces that foster street art culture.
My friend Sabina Andron, who runs the I Know What I Like Meetup Group in London, is studying street art for a PhD at University College, London. Over a period of 100 days last year she conducted an intriguing initiative, photographing the same stretches of wall on Leake Street (a virtual tunnel underneath Waterloo station) every day over a month and recording the organic, rapid changes in the artwork.
Writing, art and geography are, of course, not the only areas in which ‘only connect’ produces exciting and unusual innovations. Musicians often cross-fertilise, with many whole new genres created from the fusion of apparently unrelated styles. In my local pub the recent English graduate cellarman often exposes the village regulars to his eclectic musical tastes, gained from working at music festivals across Europe. It’s a bizarre experience to walk into a rural English pub and hear dub reggae by the likes of King Tubby flowing from the speakers.
I was having a drink in the pub recently and began to recognise a song I knew very well but was also simultaneously unfamiliar. I worked out it was a track from Dark Side of the Moon. The skanky,offbeat rhythms meant it definitely wasn’t Pink Floyd but it was surprisingly good — like any good, radical cover version, making the song sound written as if it was specifically for the other genre.
The track was Time and the album was the brilliant Dub Side of the Moon (see above) by the Easy All Stars. I bought it straight away and now listen to it interchangeably with the Pink Floyd original.
And foodies can give musicians a run for their money in terms of matching up bizarre combinations. Food is a major feature of the novel (including the odd matches inspired by the likes of Heston Blumenthal — liquorice ice-cream, snail porridge, mango and douglas-fir puree and the rest). So, wanting to see something of the cutting edge for myself, at the end of last year I visited the Experimental Food Society Spectacular at the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane.
This was an event run by people who like to do weird things with food. Some exhibits were immersive experiences — exploring how story-telling could influence flavours or how different senses interacted with each other. Some were just a bit, well, bonkers. Let’s connect Italian food with an Italian evocation of place by building a model of Rialto Bridge in Venice purely out of dried pasta and crackers (it can be done — see below — although I’m not sure whether an arrabbiata or puttanesca sauce would go best with the balustrades or portico).
The flasks in the photo above left are of different types of tea but you don’t drink it. You inhale it (with a straw) after the people from Camellia’s Tea House put the brew through some clever vaporisation process. The vapour actually condenses on the back of your tongue, which gives a different taste sensation but one I doubt will be replacing the English cuppa very soon. (The breathable tea was so odd the story even made it into the New York Post.)
I’m not sure my fictional pub will go as far as serving its drinks in gaseous form, however intriguing the idea. But with an artist on the premises it could offer something for breakfast similar to the work of another Experimental Food Spectacular exhibitor — Dermot Flynn — Toast Artist.
A little like a street artist, Dermot Flynn, connects art with unusual surfaces — in his case toast (a look at his website shows that he works by no means exclusively in toast but it’s one of the more unusual way he earns a crust). Love it or hate it, the genre of edible art means it’s unpalatable to use conventional paint, so he uses Marmite instead.
Apparently if the Marmite is applied to white bread (presumably the more manufactured and sterile the better) to create an image which is subsequently put into a toaster, the desiccation process means the picture (or toast) will last for an indefinite period. If you can resist eating your artwork, Dermot told me that it’s perfectly possible to frame it.
For £10, I couldn’t resist the offer of having my portrait created in this unusual medium but I’ve taken the precaution of photographing it in case of unexpected nibbling.
My English teacher in the sixth form introduced me to ‘only connect’ — the famous E.M.Forster quotation — not the addictive BBC4 quiz show with Victoria Coren (although the latter is inspired by the former). The implications of those two words have made a lasting impression on me.
Actually, the quotation (from Howard’s End) is elaborated into a longer phrase that has a more specific literary meaning than the more common interpretations of its first two words: ‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest.’
However, I prefer to apply the phrase to connections in the more general sense — specifically creating or uncovering connections between often surprising subjects, which is what the quiz programme is all about. It’s also how the brain works at the most fundamental level — thoughts being the result of connections between synapses and neurons (yes, I did have to check that on Wikipedia).
Consequently, there’s a large school of thought that suggests creativity and innovation are largely the product of making connections between unlikely ideas — and that the more original the idea the more unusual and hidden is the connection between the two.
Much narrative is driven by the dissonance (and consequent creation of connections) between two (or more) ostensibly opposing situations or premises — vampires or wizards exist in the modern world, what if historical events had turned out differently, someone new comes to town (especially if it’s an alien or werewolf) and so on. Metaphor and simile, which are ways of making surprising connections, are the wellspring of imaginative writing.
And all love stories are fundamentally about creating of connections between two people — and the more unlikely the better. This is the premise of my novel: two people from very different backgrounds and who thought they wanted very different things happen to meet and they connect — although how intimately and lastingly is for the reader to discover.
The novel also connects the conflicting lifestyles of City financiers and bohemian artists, inner-city London and the bucolic English countryside and the aesthetic pleasures of art with the sensual satisfaction of food.
I also like to think Forster’s maxim works at the subconscious level too — that all the experiences you have and the information you absorb get filed away in your memory somewhere and start to connect and form new ideas without any conscious effort.
This might be why a common piece of writing advice is to put a notepad by the bed to capture the seemingly random pieces of imagination or association that sometimes surface in the transition between sleep and wakefulness. I’ve almost trained myself to slumber into this semi-conscious state when commuting on the train — and I’ve often emailed myself ideas or phrases that seemed worth noting and might have been forgotten otherwise.
It’s not ‘write what you know’ but I’m of the belief that the more experience and information you use to fertilise your mind then the more chance there is of all those neurons and synapses bearing fruit with some connections that are really interesting.
By contrast, I sometimes wonder what the sort of writer who lives like a hermit finds to write about — are they constantly drawing on childhood experiences or perhaps they find enough inspiration from secondary sources?
However, having had a ‘day job’ that’s delivered me into central London for a few years, I’ve tried to take the opportunity to load up my own brain cells. I’ve tried to do something new every day if work time and the weather have allowed. (On a warm summer day I’ve taken advantage of the nearby park and laid out on the grass for half an hour — rationalising I’m letting ideas subconsciously ferment!)
Of course, it’s not necessary to go to London to load up your brain cells but there’s so much (often free) access to huge sources of cultural stimulation that it’s very easy to do so. When the weather’s not been kind enough for sunbathing — oops I mean meditating — then I’ve met up with friends or taken myself off on walks or lunchtime visits to of museums and galleries.
I recently discovered the charming Geffrye museum in Hoxton, which is particularly atmospheric when its living rooms through the ages are decorated for Christmas. Only last week I viewed the National Gallery’s side-by-side Van Gogh’s Sunflowers exhibition and it cost nothing to do so. (Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass, mentioned above, is also free as part of the Tate Britain’s Walk Through British Art exhibition).
There are also the many special exhibitions held at the various galleries — I visited the Richard Hamilton exhibition at the Tate Modern last week in its first couple of days and before any reviews had been published, which made them all the more interesting when I read them.
I should make particular mention of the brilliant Only in England photographic exhibition in its last few weeks at the Science Museum. It features Tony Ray-Jones’s spontaneous pictures of English eccentricity (I’m desperate to find a print of the Whitstable Bay lovers on the boat trip) along with Martin Parr’s poignant photographs of isolated 1970s Yorkshire communities (actually near Hebden Bridge — not far from where I was brought up).
And with two thousand years of recorded history, London itself is full of connections between old and new, especially in the areas around the City and the East-End and docklands — with possibly the best example the fabulous Millennium Bridge creating a spectacular connection between St. Paul’s Cathedral (which occupies a very ancient site) with the Tate Modern building, an icon of post-industrial transformation and one of the largest-scale examples of how artists have taken over what were once resolutely functional and non-decorative buildings and neighbourhoods (see forthcoming post).
While I like the serendipity of walking aimlessly around the city, I’ve also used various books of guided walks to explore areas I’d never routinely visit. Steven Millar’s two volumes of London’s Hidden Walks have been particularly inspiring. I’ve wandered with his books in hand around Soho, St. James’s, Marylebone, Clerkenwell, the City, Temple, Westminster, Chelsea and Covent Garden.
I’ve also explored areas further off the beaten track like Whitechapel, Lambeth and Vauxhall (where I discovered the fascinating enclave around Bonnington Square Garden), Rotherhithe and Deptford (see the spectacular view in the photograph above).
One of the most poignant sites I’ve discovered while walking around London was on the walk around the South Bank and Southwark. The site of the Crossbones Graveyard contains the unmarked graves of 15,000 children and prostitutes — those who for hundreds of years until the mid-nineteenth century weren’t considered worthy of a burial inside the boundaries of the grounds of the Winchester Palace and Southwark Cathedral . The graveyard’s existence was only discovered when the Jubilee Line was constructed in the 1990s. It has now become a shrine for modern day sex workers — with memorial ribbons tied to the gates. It’s still a derelict site owned by London Transport and campaigners are trying to resist development plans and preserve the area as a memorial.
In common with others I’ve found wandering London, it’s a touching and surprising story and will lodge in my mind for a long time. In years to come, might the memory of this walk randomly cross-fertilise with some snatch of conversation, a recalled art exhibition or museum exhibit — and out of my subconscious might emerge some original idea or compelling concept might bubble its way out of my subconscious? Who knows? In any case, it’s great reward in itself to cram all this material in my mind in the first place.
UPDATE 9th March 2014: A photographer I met at The Other Art Fair last year, Maria Konstanse Bruun (who’s from Norway but based in the UK) posted this article on her Facebook page. It’s from the Huffington Post and is a list of the 18 behaviours that apparently mark out creative people from others. I certainly recognise many in myself: daydreaming, observing people, liking solitude, seeking out new experiences (see the above post), losing track of time and, of course, ‘connecting the dots’. It’s well worth a read.
I didn’t intend to write this post but I was making a comment on Isabel Costello’s blog On The Literary Sofa and it became so long that I thought it would be an imposition to post on her blog in its entirety – hence it’s mutated into a rather long post of its own on this site instead.
Isabel’s blog posts are thought-provoking and well-researched and long enough to develop an interesting argument, which I like (though not quite as long as some of my posts). The title of On the Literary Sofa’s centenary post published this week is Sex Scenes in Fictionand it’s well worth a few minutes of any literary-minded person’s time — as is the rest of the blog, which has barely mentioned the subject of sex before now. (And I should add that I know Isabel — mainly via Twitter although we’ve met a couple of times. I haven’t hit on her blog at random.) Reading Isabel’s original post may also put my arguments below into context: many of the points are direct responses to quotations or points made On The Literary Sofa. I also revisit some views I’ve previously blogged about myself.
It’s a very balanced piece, asking whether it’s desirable (or even feasible) to effectively write good fiction about sex. It covers positions (and I will resist the temptation to highlight double entendres throughout this post or it will be even longer than it currently stands) from the ‘when the bedroom door closes everything should be left to the imagination’ advocates to those who prefer naturalistic no-holds-barred action with explicit vocabulary to match. However, I absolutely agree with Isabel’s observation that ‘it would be to the detriment of literature if nobody wrote sex scenes’.
I find the term ‘sex scene’ a little troubling when it comes to fiction as it echoes the vocabulary of film and television (or even art). The term scene is always coupled with sex but it’s not often used to describe other passages of fiction. It also suggests the visual – that depictions of sex are about what you see – whereas the power of words extends directly into thoughts, emotions and the other senses.
There’s an argument that writers should self-censor because, as these scenes are difficult to write, there’s a lot of bad writing about sex. This view is perpetuated by the likes of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards. I’m sure the Literary Review could find plenty of examples of bad writing about other situations but people wouldn’t find them as amusing, which is probably a symptom of British embarrassment when the subject is discussed in public.
In itself, I can’t believe that sex is an impossible subject to write about. Just because it’s perceived as difficult to get right that’s not an argument to stop trying – more the opposite. If writers retreated from the hidden and potentially uncomfortable then novels would become terribly banal.
Isabel quotes Irish author John Banville on the reason he thinks sex in fiction is so difficult: ‘What people feel they are doing is so discontinuous with what they are actually doing.’
This seems to be a cop out. The differences between a person’s perceptions and the ‘reality’ of what they’re actually doing are a staple of fiction. There are plenty of instances in other fictional situations where feelings are disconnected from actuality – grisly murders, for example.
Discussing Banville, the On The Literary Sofa post argues that ‘sex, which [is described] as this extraordinary act, is one of the few aspects of life to remain private, even in an age when we are surrounded by sexual imagery and so many are hooked on “sharing”‘.
There’s much truth and insight to this argument. It’s a paradox that a behaviour which (for most of us) is private is referenced so heavily in all varieties of culture. A quick glance at the shelves of W.H. Smith also illustrates an insatiable curiosity (for both sexes) in what other people are doing (‘Am I normal?).
Perhaps another interpretation of Banville’s words is that is that sex is much less likely to be an activity to which the author has been a third-party observer (at least at first hand). Although this point is not limited to sex – any fantasy or historical novelist has never witnessed or experienced their topic – it might be unique in that it’s an activity that is so universally practised, albeit in private. However, this should surely make it a much more compelling subject to write about.
I suspect the argument that sex is too hard to write about is a canard used by authors who are simply shy and embarrassed. There’s no reason why writers should write on subjects they’re uncomfortable with but it’s disingenuous to justify that by asserting that it’s impossible for anyone else to succeed.
I’m sure that much of the reason many writers avoid writing about sex (particularly in creative writing classes where they may have to read it out or discuss it in person) is because of the fear that readers will blur the distinction between writer and character/narrator (i.e. if someone writes about being spanked or having sex in a public place or so on then they feel that readers will somehow snigger away, having inferred it must all be autobiographical).
Why? Anyone reader who automatically conflated the author with the protagonists in other genres would be considered unable to understand the basic principles of fiction (‘it’s made up’). Countless thriller writers come up with depraved ideas, the vast majority of whom aren’t considered sick-minded individuals.
Similarly, some writers say they’d be embarrassed on behalf of their partners/parents/children if their sex scenes entered the public domain. Again, that’s their personal call, but readers won’t assume that this writing is any more autobiographical than anything else in a novel. And it’s most likely, as with less sensitive topics, that a writer’s experience will be used to create composites of characters or plot events. (In the novel I’m writing, the sex scenes are more likely to draw on university experiences than anything more recent).
Published writers , no matter how high profile, seem to deal easily with any prurient questioning – take E.L. James’s frank but hardly salacious comments. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn easily deflected questions in an interview in last weekend’s Sunday Times– stating how happy her own marriage was and that her husband encouraged her to push the boundaries in her writing as far as she felt necessary.
Most creative writing classes and workshops therefore tiptoe around sex scenes at least until participants know each other better (I think the Open University officially cautions against them). But because (rather than in spite) of the difficulty and potential embarrassment I was determined to workshop a sex scene by the end of my City University course. I’m glad I did that as I’m happy to submit my writing about sex to MA tutors, coursemates and anyone else who’ll read it in a mature way (although I sometimes give a polite warning).
Because it was difficult to push myself for the first workshop I’m a fan of the approach that Isabel describes in her blog post about when she attended a creative writing workshop about sex (a Word Factory Masterclass) that was led by literary novelist Michèle Roberts. She asked the writers to ‘asked us to write a sex scene involving something we’d never done. Cue nervous laughter. Twenty minutes later we were listening to some engaging and hilarious stories about threesomes, dogging and a decadent practice someone had just dreamed up.’
It’s an ingenious approach – deliberately avoiding any autobiographical speculation by instructing writers specifically not to use direct experience. It puts everyone in the same position and it sounds like it was very funny. Sex can be a tremendous source of humour in real life but intentionally amusing sex scenes are arguably relatively rare in fiction. Not all funny sex has to be bad sex either. Good humorous writing about sex – as with any subject – means laughing with the characters and the writing, rather than at it.
I suspect there’s also a similar issue with readers. One’s private reaction to an erotic scene in a novel might be much more awkward to admit to others than pretending it’s hilariously funny or marginalising its importance — the reaction ‘less is more’ seems to be useful code for saying ‘Of course I’m not a prude but I’d rather die than admit I got sexually aroused’.
It seems to be motivated from the same discomfort that inspires the Bad Sex Awards – the notion that there’s writing about sex can be classified into either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I’m sure there are many occasions when less detail is preferable but it shouldn’t be misapplied into a general rule that says all such writing should be brief. In some contexts whole chapters in the bedroom could be necessary or appropriate.
(As an aside, I usually find ‘less is more’ to be a particularly unhelpful comment if used generally in feedback. Without pointing out which of the ‘more’ should be discarded and which of the ‘less’ should be retained, it’s really a cryptic way of saying ‘be more concise’, which is a principle that all writers should use anyway. It’s similar to another bête noire of mine – ‘murder your darlings’. Some misguided people interpret this as advising all writers to delete any writing that they think is good – one of the stupidest pieces of advice ever. What it should mean is ‘don’t be self-indulgent’ but even that apparently sound advice is difficult to apply – one reader’s self-indulgence is another’s literary masterpiece.)
It’s good that someone who writes a popular literary blog that, as is pointed out in the post has hardly mentioned the subject in past, is brave enough to avoid the easy route of trivialising and ridiculing of writing about sex.
It’s not being depraved or perverted or unusual to be aroused (mentally or physically) by well-written writing — it touches what it is to be human and good writing can also evoke physical reactions in other ways — raising heartbeat with suspense stories and so on.
Anyone reading this far might think my novel is stuffed with sex scenes. It’s not — but it’s a modern novel with a male-female relationship at its core and the attraction between the characters is key to driving the plot.
As it stands, the first sex scene is well over a third into the novel and there’s probably no more than half a dozen in total and the narrative is only in flagrante delicto two or three times. It’s much more likely that the writing sets the scene or explores the consequences, particularly through dialogue.
Using all the feedback patiently offered me by my coursemates and writing friends, I’ve worked out the parameters that I feel I’m comfortable with and competent in writing. I find there’s a problem with diction — it’s difficult to tread the line between medical terminology and euphemism (or the overblown imagery that earns a Bad Sex Award).
While words like cock seem to do the job (so to speak) for the male anatomy there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory word for the female equivalent. (I get puzzled when some writers substitute the abstract noun ‘sex’ for the concrete – as in ‘he touched her sex’.) But words like ‘pussy’ seem either too American-porno (or Mrs Slocombe) and the c word sets off a debate that would take another blog post to discuss.
Similarly with the actual act of sexual intercourse itself — there’s a limit to how much language can enhance the mechanics. But while most sex could be represented as a basic biological transaction, its immediate context could reveal much about the relationship between characters. For example, even in relatively ‘vanilla’ sex, characters might use more anonymising positions in which they don’t see each other’s faces.
While there might be limits to the variety of description of sex itself, assuming the novel or story isn’t purely for titillation, there’s a huge role for fiction to illuminate its anticipation, desires and consequences.
If it’s true to life, it should reflect that it’s part of the human condition to understand that we’re not always motivated by rational, intellectual choices. I’m fascinated by the subconscious, subliminal, instinctive, inexplicable desires that are drivers of our behaviour. And these are universal. While it might be more socially conventional for men to be portrayed as being more driven by sex, it would be an unfortunate (and perhaps incompetent) man who’d never experienced in private the formidably pleasurable force of female sexual desire.
Sometimes we do things we know are wrong and may have catastrophic consequences that are purely based on physical impulses that might come from dark places we don’t understand. That’s surely an incredibly fruitful subject for fiction.
And cultural values change as I was reminded when I visited the Pompeii and Hurculaneum exhibition at the British Museum at the weekend. The Romans would be puzzled that we were having this debate at all. They thought nothing of murals of people having sex or ubiquitous representations of phalluses (wind chimes were a favourite!). And the statue of what Pan was doing with the goat probably was beyond the imaginations of anyone at Isabel’s Word Factory Masterclass.
It’s been so long since the last post I’ve taken inspiration from the chiller at the end of the aisle in my local Tesco and have produced three posts for the price of one.
Last Saturday night, primed after a few pints from the local pub, I joined the annual British tradition of watching the Eurovision Song Contest.
Nowadays this appears to be a ‘game of two halves’ affair. When the performers gamely take the stage, we indulge in the finest British tradition of thoroughly taking the piss, especially of the self-deluded countries that appear to take the competition seriously. But we’re often dumbstruck when some of the acts are so bizarre they rise above irony.
Among the general cheesiness this year was an apparent theme of giants — including a towering vampire giant from Romania — and a bizarre song from Greece called Alcohol is Free –if true then then it sounds great place for a couple of weeks in the summer. (Perhaps it’s to try and convince the Germans of the merits of their economic model?)
The second half of the show is like a hangover. All our European friends get their own back on all our withering sarcasm by apparently voting in concerted geo-political alliances which have the ultimate aim of making sure the Royaume Uni comes last – although this year, reflecting Euro tensions maybe, the Germans received the same kicking.
Like most parties, it’s a good idea to leave well before the end.
And we’re not just limited to using our own sparkling wit to complement Graham Norton’s (who maintains the peculiarly British Eurovision tradition of having an Irishman to cheer-lead the devastating put-downs). In the age of social media we can exchange our banter real-time in cyberspace in real time in a national Twitter bitchathon. Some academic could probably establish a correlation between retweeting and favouriting and the flow of booze as the night wears on.
Once, like some of the newer European countries, we seemed take the Eurovision Song Contest seriously – or maybe it’s just that I was child (just about) when the likes of Bucks Fizz and, earlier, the Brotherhood of Man actually won the thing.
Could it be that the Tory party’s neurosis over Europe can be directly traced to when the foreign Johnnies spurned Cliff Richard’s Congratulations — and, even worse, when we gave them a chance of atonement when he tried again with Power to All Our Friends?
And suspicions over our continental cousins would have been kindled when they failed to be seduced by the charms of our own Olivia Newton John. So what if she actually came from Australia? Before her fall from grace as Sandy in Grease and her raunchy Physical phase Olivia was very much the kind of girl next door beloved by the swivel-eyed loon community, albeit from 10,000 miles away.
For a period its popularity seemed to be waning – you can’t imagine the Britpop types of the 90s giving Eurovision more than a post-ironic ‘f*** off’ – but Eurovision has undergone the same renaissance as many other re-invented guilty pleasures. Who’d have ever thought ELO would become über cool?
Is it because, to the annoyance of some, that we’re far more integrated into Europe and the British lifestyle has become more comfortably continental?
Or, does the Eurovision Song Contest, amongst the uncool crooners and ubiquitous camp dancing, offer rare nuggets of unbridled eccentricity and uninhibited spontaneity – exactly the type of entertainment that’s normally lacking from prime-time Saturday night schedules?
I don’t watch vast amounts of the likes of the X-Factor, The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent (the novel-writing takes care of that) but I’ve seen enough to know that ‘success’ (at least in the first two of those programmes) is dependent on conformance to rigid stereotypes.
Simon Cowell and his ilk have condensed the music market into reliably marketable categories: the soul diva; the guy next door with that twinkle in his eye; the sassy girl-power group or the boy band with cheeky/smouldering/six-packing members (clichéd descriptions, I know, but that’s the point).
While it’s true that most music is marketed using less overt but equally cynically derivative formula, these stereotypes are particularly fail-safe. The distinction between successive years’ talent show winners are often of a similar magnitude to the great technological innovations that are emblazoned on the packaging of toothpaste or dishwasher tablets – a load of powerballs.
Nor do The X-Factor’s less manufactured rivals provide a feast of musical originality. The likes of Emili Sandé or Adele produce very competent and well-crafted albums and the bands like Coldplay can work a stadium along with the best of them (who are probably still the ancient Rolling Stones). But none of their work is likely to confound the expectations of their fans.
(This isn’t to say I dislike any of these above artists as I’ve bought CDs by all of them – yes, CDs show I’m old-fashioned enough to actually still buy music).
What tends not to succeed with these formulae are the qualities of imagination, eccentricity inventiveness and experimentation, the lack of which may explain the phenomenal popularity of the current David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A Museum. Bowie’s even on the cover of next week’s Radio Times. (There’s a programme about Bowie’s most significant five years on BBC2 tonight (25th May) – which I’ll probably watch after exchanging messages with my German friend Thomas about the all-German Champions League final at Wembley.)
I’m not a mega Bowie fan but I learned my lesson from failing to get a ticket to the V&A’s recent Hollywood exhibition so booked early (tickets went very quickly) and managed to spend a lunchtime there last month.
It wasn’t nearly long enough – it would be easy to spend an hour or so just watching the concert footage. I compensated by buying the big, heavy show catalogue – for which my groaning bookshelves won’t forgive me.
From the point of view of plugging away for years at my own creative endeavour, it was reassuring that the exhibition started with the efforts of Bowie and his record companies to persist in trying to breakthrough commercially in the late 60s – something often forgotten in career retrospectives.
Bowie spent around five years on the fringes of Swinging London (from the famous 1964 BBC Tonight long-hair interview) until Space Oddity established his reputation, commercially timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landings. (Oddly, I didn’t see any references whatsoever to The Laughing Gnome throughout the exhibition.)
That so much of the material came from his personal archive also showed how assiduously Bowie has curated his own artistic legacy.
The V&A show displays many Bowie stage costumes. Viewed close up, some of the outfits look less like iconic images than home-made fancy dress costumes. But these were an essential part of Bowie’s distinctive appeal as he underwent style makeovers at a dizzying pace, especially in the early 70s, changing from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane and so on. That’s one era that I’m fortunately too young to remember properly, although I do recall my uncle, a student at the time, showing my dad the cover of Diamond Dogs – to which the response was something like ‘What the bloody hell is that?’
Worth the entrance fee alone, particularly as a piece of social history in the week when a gay marriage bill has gone through the Commons, is the hilariously caustic Bernard Falk film for BBC Nationwide which is played on a loop in the exhibition. Dating back to 1973 it spits studied disgust at Bowie’s androgynous gender role-play. It’s well worth clicking the link to watch it on YouTube.
‘David Bowie spends two hours before his show caressing his body with paint…a bizarre, self-constructed freak…it is a sign of our times that a man with a painted face and carefully adjusted lipstick should inspire adoration from an audience of girls aged between fourteen and twenty…he will earn around half-a-million pounds this year [so] he can afford a personal make-up artist to cover his nails in silver.’
Being too young to follow Bowie’s reinventions at the time and his withdrawal (literally from drugs — his cocaine spoon is in the exhibition) and renewal in his Low period and the Berlin years, I found this an interesting section of the exhibition, especially as I like the city myself.
The first Bowie record I bought was, I think, Ashes to Ashes (that video is very peculiar), followed by Catpeople (both versions are brilliant), the weird Baal EP and the commercial Let’s Dance (I love Nile Rogers’ work from the late 70s to the mid 80s).
The videos for some of Bowie’s greatest tracks can be viewed alongside the original costumes and his own handwritten lyrics. These fascinate me. It’s an amazing experience to read lines like ‘Sailors fighting on the dancefloor, Oh man, look at those cavemen go,’ in the writer’s own hand, hearing the words sung simultaneously. Maybe it’s because I have the mind-set of a writer but I venerate these pieces of handwriting like religious artefacts (as I did viewing handwritten drafts by the likes of Jane Austen, Hardy, Eliot and J.G. Ballard at the British Library last year).
Reading Bowie’s own handwriting I realised this was the first time I’d actually fully understood many of his lyrics – especially lines like ‘strung out on heaven’s high’.
The strange juxtapositions that are a feature of Bowie’s lyrics were partially explained by an exhibit about the ‘Verbasizer’: a computer program he commissioned to randomly assemble fragments of sentences that had been fed into it . Bowie trawled the output for interesting combinations that he could develop further – maybe a useful tool for a poet or fiction writer?
I can’t agree with those who say Bowie was the most significant popular musician of the late twentieth century. However, his creation of enough artefacts to sustain a show at the V&A demonstrates, perhaps, his approach of constant re-invention and challenging of the audience through playing with the persona of the pop star meant that he was uniquely pivotal in developing the interaction between popular music and visual art.
In doing so, he created some beautiful music – I always think the ending of Ashes to Ashes is one of the most exquisite passages of popular music. Bowie was also shrewd in working with some great collaborators. They contributed hugely to the sound of the Zeitgeist of the time– for example Rick Wakeman’s haunting piano on Life On Mars and the work of Mick Ronson (who worked as a council gardener in Hull immediately prior to being one of the Spiders from Mars), Iggy Pop, Tony Visconti and many others.
The contrast between the Bowie’s rip-it-up-and-start-again approach and the industrialisation of the X Factor wannabees is also perhaps applicable to the experience of the aspiring writer. The goal is similar – to impress the judges – agents, publishers, booksellers – who can metaphorically allow their work to proceed to the next round, etc.
While some are happy to write for themselves and a limited audience, the majority of writers seek their work to be read by as widely as possible. The motivation might be very similar, in a quiet bookish way, to the attention-seekers on TV talent shows – having your name on the cover of a book on sale in a shop must be immensely gratifying, even more so after the long, lonely slog of writing a novel. On a more personal level, I’m sure most writers get an ego buzz when someone says they’ve enjoyed reading their work – why workshopping writing can be stressful – will you get a high of approbation or a low of ‘this didn’t really work for me’?
It’s likely there are more people who aspire to be novelists than join the next One Direction. While it probably wouldn’t be very televisual to film a show with hopeful writers auditioning their prose, which would probably vary between execrable or surprisingly good, it would still be compelling, competitive drama.
In the meantime, there’s no shortage of writing competitions or other forums in which writers can offer up their work for the judgement of others (writing groups, creative writing courses, etc.). Having taken many writing courses and kept in touch with quite a wide network of writer friends, both physically and online, I’ve had plenty of experience of having my own writing critiqued. I’ve also critiqued a lot of other people’s writing in return.
I like to think that I try to offer feedback by suspending, as much as possible, my own preferences and to assess whether the writing achieves the objectives with which its author set out (as far as these can be discerned). But I had an experience last week that made me wonder if I’d been swallowed up by the great ‘rules of creative writing’ homogenising machine.
A new friend who’s a writer sent me the opening of a book she was working on. It was very compelling, although I’d annotated the manuscript with quite a few notes for feedback. She’d also read the work to a writers’ group she’d recently joined and had sought the opinions of other writing friends.
We met up for a chat and when I mentioned various points that had occurred to me about the writing – like the narrative arc, scene-setting/chronology, point-of-view, intertwining of detail and back story – she invariably said ‘That’s really useful as the writers’ group said that too’ or ‘That’s exactly what my friend said’.
This was quite reassuring for her – and in some ways for me – because if my suggestions were similar to those of other people I’ve never met then my comments weren’t the ramblings of a lone, self-opinionated eccentric.
It’s likely that these other reviewers were influenced by the same courses, books/magazines on writing, conferences, agent talks, blogs, Twitter, etc. And this means that our collective perspective probably largely coincides with the general views of the professional ‘judges’ of writing: agents, publishers, editors and so on.
But, to return to the previous musical comparisons, do these universal truths mean that following these collectively-held writing axioms is more likely to shape a literary Joe McElderry than a David Bowie?
While conscientiously workshopping one’s writing is likely to purge the equivalent of cheesy, lame Eurovision entries, the tendency for writing groups to search for consensus might also dismiss the mad, off-the-wall eccentricities that are comparable to what makes the song contest’s unique appeal.
My Twitter friend, Pete Domican, makes some good points on his recent update to his blog entry about his decision to avoid buying from Amazon, which is well worth a read.
One of the points he makes in favour of using specialist bookshops is the serendipity of finding the unexpected: ‘I want to find books on a shelf that I’d have never discovered otherwise… I want to have conversations with writers who write ‘weird’ stuff…’
There’s so much advice aimed at making writers’ work stand out in the slush pile that its truisms are almost ubiquitous – and the focus is usually on trying to reduce the risk of making mistakes. It’s tempting to think that this might encourage a general shift towards the formulaic although there are certainly plenty of books published that don’t follow The Rules (probably by writers lucky enough to attract attention who have either avoided the traditional sources of advice (or deliberately contradicted them). And established writers potentially may feel freer to experiment.
Given last Saturday’s reaction from my ex-City university writing group friends to the latest section of my novel, I probably don’t have to worry too much about my own writing being over-homogenised. I was asked ‘Do you put these things in to deliberately get a reaction out of us?’ The answer is that I don’t (although I did slip in one line for that purpose in last week’s extract). It appears my novel is quite capable of setting off lively debates and reaction without any pre-meditated intervention – which I think is probably a good thing, on balance.
While I read a great deal and try to do more if possible, the necessity of grabbing bits of spare time to write my own novel means I don’t get time to get through nearly as many contemporary novels as I’d like – I’d love to get through a fraction of the number of new novels as does another Twitter writer friend, Isabel Costello.
Isabel’s blog, On the Literary Sofa, features many of her reviews of recent and forthcoming novels. The latest post lists her top ‘10’ summer reads (worth visiting, not least for the chance of winning one of the books). I noted that the majority of the titles, which on first impression seem to sit around the ‘sweet spot’ between genre and literary fiction, were set overseas, particularly in North America and South Africa.
The interesting location of the novels reflects the importance of setting to a reader – using a novel to imagine oneself transported into another world is a fundamental attraction of fiction. What Isabel’s list doesn’t appear to feature heavily is the ‘high concept’ novel.
‘High concept’ is about trying to make a novel sound completely unique – particularly when reduced to a one or two sentence ‘elevator pitch’ – and according to a lot of advice I’ve read or heard, the more quirky or intriguing the concept the better – they often involve devices like memory loss, manipulation of time, improbable challenges and so on. But, paradoxically, when an increasing number of successful novels are evidently constructed around some kind of attention-grabbing concept then the need for a similar hook starts to become another essential item on the how-to-get-published checklist.
I’m currently reading a novel in which the prose is wonderful, the main character is sympathetic and credible and the author is adept at using difficult technical skills, such as dropping in backstory that anticipates readers’ questions that have been subtly raised. It’s also constructed around an obviously whimsical, quirky concept. While the concept works as a device in giving momentum to the narrative arc, I’m already becoming quite exasperated because it also seems to stretch the plot’s credibility past breaking point. It also requires the author to address otherwise unnecessary details that result from trying to sustain the central premise.
The book has clearly worked commercially and I’m sure I’m particularly curious about the techniques used to structure a narrative. However, I wondered if it had started as a ‘quiet’ book, concentrating on character-related development, and had the concept reverse-engineered into it. I may be completely wrong – the hook may have sprung into the writer’s mind before the rest of the novel but I it will be interesting to see the approach the author takes with her next book.
Like most such fashions, hopefully the primacy of high concept ideas will pass as, while it helps make a great pitch to a Waterstones buyer, ultimately the reader will suffer if writers of sympathetic and intelligent books feel the incorporation of some over-arching novelty is a pre-requisite for publication.
Having cited David Bowie as an example of rule-breaking and diversity, some might argue his approach to showmanship is in the spirit of high concept. In the case of Bowie as an individual artist, this is probably true. However, a truer analogy with writing advice would have resulted in every aspiring singer in the mid-70s to be told the way to success was to ape Bowie and re-invent elaborate personas for each album. To some extent this happened with prog-rock (remember Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower?) but what swiftly followed was a huge two-fingers being given to this prevailing orthodoxy: punk.
I recently read John Lanchester’s Capital, partly because it has some genre similarities with my own writing. I had high expectations for the novel. These weren’t wholly fulfilled but I admired the book’s ambition and the way it contradicted much of the received writing wisdom.
The ‘ultimate question’ asked in courses and workshops about a novel is usually ‘whose story is it?’. Capital can’t answer this – there are well over half-a-dozen characters who share equal prominence. And it’s not the story of Pepys Road (in south London, nominally where it’s set) either because there’s no real connection between the characters apart from vague demographics – some don’t even live there. There are also many sudden POV shifts, a large amount of exposition by ‘telling’ and there isn’t much of a narrative ‘chain of causality’.
Some of Capital’s characters work better than others but, as a reader, I’d rather Lanchester attempted the diversity of writing from the perspective of a female Zimbabwean parking attendant or a character innocently caught on the fringes of religious extremism than to stick with what seems the safer, more comedic territory of the disillusioned banker or football club fixer.
The book similarly varies in tone – ranging from terminal illness through the sexual motivation of Polish builders to the topical humour of an irredeemably consumerist banker’s wife. But I can imagine a writer being given advice on pitching a similar novel ‘but what is it – a romance, a comedy, social commentary’?
Like Eurovision and Bowie, Capital defies easy categorisation, and should be admired for that because if a ‘rules of the X-Factor’ approach is over-rigorously applied then we’re in danger of losing the serendipity and variety of the eccentric and individual that provide genuine surprise and delight.
The point from which this view can be seen is unique — with that tremendous triangular shadow — and it’s only been open a week. I must have been very lucky to have caught a moment where the sun was almost directly to the south of the Shard and low enough in the winter sky to have thrown that needle-like shadow long enough to cross the Thames and into the heart of the City itself. While I’ve reduced the resolution of the photos for quicker downloading, it can be seen that the tip of darkness points about a hundred yards directly east of The Monument — perhaps rather symbolic from the new structure in Southwark.
So — I couldn’t resist it. I splashed out my £25 and went up the Shard on Monday this week — only the fourth day the viewing platform, The View From the Shard, had been open. Well, I had to really, after all, I’ve been following its progress while it’s been under construction and charted much of its development on this blog.
This post isn’t entirely unrelated to the novel. A significant part of The Angel’s plot happens in places photographed below, which I’ll mention, and I suspect there’s something quite writerly about enjoying a view like this from high above.
But principally, this post is an unashamed Shard-splurge and, rather appropriately, takes up a lot of vertical screen space — but, if you’re on the home page and looking for other posts, keep on scrolling as it’s all still there — just a long way down (like the River Thames above).
I’ve thumbnailed seven photographs below from in 2011 and 2012, most of which have appeared on the blog. Taken from various viewpoints (anyone want to guess where?), the photos show the rapid pace of construction.
Here’s the Shard rising in 2011.
The viewing platform is lower than might be imagined. It’s on the highest of the steel floors that were slotted around the concrete core as it rose upwards. However, The pinnacle of the building (a considerable height as can be seen from one of the photos below) was prefabricated like a 3D jigsaw and assembled in Yorkshire before being disassembled and lifted into place on the top of the building.
Here are four shots from 2012. The crane has disappeared in the May photo but the lift along the outside remains attached. I was baffled at the time about how the crane at the top would be removed but the builders ingeniously erected a temporary crane on the side of the Shard close enough to the top to be able to reach up to remove the tall crane but accessible enough from within the building to be disassembled. Cranes fascinate me.
Sp the viewing gallery is around the point where the track for the exterior lift stops in the May 2012 photo. Even so, it’s very high, as can be seen by some of the pictures below, and it’s odd to think that slightly over a year ago the viewing platform was just empty sky.
The dreadful weather in London over the last couple of years is noticeable in the series of photos — there’s barely any blue sky in any of the photos — even those taken in the summer.
By contrast, I was lucky with the weather when I was actually on top of the Shard. Monday was a bright and breezy day. Imagine pre-booking several tickets at £25 to find that the top of the Shard was shrouded in low cloud — something that will happen. Looking at the website’s terms and conditions, it appears that the management has discretion to provide a voucher in lieu of future use in these circumstances.
Although the top floor of the observation area is open to the elements, there’s still a safe wall of glass extending well above head height. The combination of glass and light entering from all directions means the viewing area, particularly the higher level, is tricky for photography (at least when it’s bright — next time I won’t wear a light-coloured coat). Half the photos that I took aren’t publishable on this blog due to smeary reflections.
As its marketing suggests, the View From The Shard is a well-organised and a friendly experience, if the chatty lift attendants are anything to go by. Unlike the London Eye, where by definition your viewing time is limited, visitors can stay all day at the top of the Shard (although entry is by timed-slot). Much attention has been paid to the detail, with an interactive map of where the four viewing platform lifts are positioned and even specially woven London sight-themed carpets. There’s also a little gift shop seventy storeys up. But as I queued in front of a large video screen for the airport style security scanners, I didn’t expect to see the scene below:
Yes — Village Underground’s facade on Great Eastern Street was entertaining the waiting tourists. (This is where Kim has her studio at the start of the novel.) It was part of a montage including Brick Lane and other ‘edgy’ urban attractions that shows how the urban street-art scene is now an established part of the London tourist experience. I asked Village Underground via Facebook if they knew their wall was being used as part of the Shard’s tribute to the capital’s culture — they didn’t but thought it was quite cool.
So, how far can you see? As this picture shows, I was able to get a hazy view as far out as Wembley, with a fuzzy glimpse of Harrow-on-the-Hill and the Chilterns beyond. The hills of Essex and the North Downs are also visible from other directions but I’d love to go up on an exceptionally clear day with a pair of binoculars and find out how far I can see.
One paradox of the view from the Shard is that it’s a high enough perspective to avoid all the buildings that normally clutter London’s sightlines. Take St. Paul’s Cathedral. Although it’s a little distant and the view is necessarily from above, in this picture it’s possible to imagine how St. Paul’s used to dominate the London skyline until the second half of the last century.
The St. Paul’s photo shows something of a parallel with narrative point-of-view. The height of the Shard gives an almost omniscient, third-person perspective — with enough information to see the big picture — how the components of the view or narrative relate to each other. And (with a camera or change in what Emma Darwin calls psychic distance) you can zoom in closer to the subject. But the trade-off of omniscience is distance and remoteness. Only by standing close to St. Paul’s can you appreciate its scale or touch the fabric of the building and feel its solidity. And to stretch the metaphor further, go inside the building and explore within.
A significant part of the plot in the London section of my novel occurs around St. Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge also features.This photograph shows the elegance and economy of its design — leaving very little impact apart from a silvery filament connecting both banks of the river.
And it serves as a great metaphor — linking the commercial Square Mile with the two cultural icons of the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank. The top of the photo also shows part of the new, incredibly long, Blackfriars station which extends right across the river. Note the solar panels that provide half the electricity for the station.
Having a camera with a (modest) zoom lens is obviously useful when you’re 300m up. Also, going back to locations in the novel, the below is a telephoto view of the bridge that takes the new Overground line across the top of Shoreditch High Street. The bus is at the end of Kingsland Road near the Geffrye Museum by a line of shops that features in a section of the novel connected with street art, although this piece might be one of the casualties of revision. I tried to spot Village Underground, with its tube trains on the roof but it appears to be hidden from the top of the Shard by the Broadgate Tower — which is at the extreme right edge of the photo.
Here’s the London Eye with St.James’s Park behind. Buckingham Palace is around ten o’clock — it’s quite a difficult place to pick out — I had to describe the location it to a family who were particularly looking for it. This shows that the London Eye is in a far better location for sightseeing, being much closer to the main tourist sites. Unfortunately for tourists, most of the view from the east and south sides of the Shard is devoid of landmarks, although I’m quite interested in looking at ‘ordinary’ London from the Shard. Even though I like the Shard, I’m glad it’s not been constructed slap bang in the centre of London — imagine how out of scale it would look next to Nelson’s Column or Big Ben.
It’s a shame the big beach volleyball stadium at Horse Guard’s Parade has gone. It would have been slap right in the middle of the photo.
The height allows you to get up close for unusually personal views of better known landmarks from a unique perspective.
Sadly the well-loved Gherkin seems to be in danger of being obscured, especially from the west, by its new neighbours under construction — the Walkie Talkie and the Cheesegrater. Both are seen in the photo below, although I’m not yet sure which is which.
Slightly to the west (the other side of Bishopsgate) is the building that was the tallest in the country for many years — Tower 42 (previously the NatWest Tower). The perspective from the Shard shows how much the new record holder looms so much taller.
(Tower 42’s story partly explains why the opening of the Shard gallery is such an event. When it was the Nat West building, it was severely damaged by a terrorist bomb. Terrorism was one of the reasons why other high buildings either closed to the public or never opened public observation areas at all — such as the BT Tower and Canary Wharf tower. Unlike many other cities, London had no public high level viewpoints, excepting restaurants and bars, until the Eye opened in 2000 — the Shard really is an innovation.)
The below picture also gives an idea of the Shard’s height — it looks down on the roof of Guy’s Hospital tower — which was one of the tallest buildings south of the river pre-Shard.
A sense of height is also given by the way the railway lines from London Bridge stretch out into the distance.
This view towards the north west shows how the BT Tower also stands high over Fitzrovia and Marylebone. In the bottom right there’s a good view of the Royal Courts of Justice and to the upper left the colourful, new St. Giles’s development stands out. (Maybe I should get a job as a London tour guide?)
From this high up, the Olympic Park seems relatively close to the centre of London — much nearer than Wembley, although the Shard’s position itself is skewed to the south-east of central London.
One of London’s most distinguishing characteristics is the meandering Thames — and the twists and turns of the river can be appreciating from the Shard as from no other perspective.
And yet the Shard’s summit is substantially higher than the public deck, although you’d have to have a hard hat and a remarkable head for heights to climb the pinnacle below to reach the very summit.
So, is it worth it? If you’ve got a morning or afternoon to spend and you’re interested with London’s geography already then you’ll be fascinated — but also if you just want to indulge a child-like sense of wonder of being so high above the rest of the city then it’s a unique experience. There’s something inescapably human about wanting to stand and look at a city in this sort of panorama. And, to bring it back to novel writing, think of all the many stories that are playing out down below.
My novel has a lot of food in it — and probably one of the most consistent pieces of feedback that I’ve received from the many and varied people who’ve been kind enough to read parts of the manuscript (or have been forced to endure it as part of a course) is that they enjoy the writing about food — the sensory appeal and so on. (Maybe it might not be thought a Good Thing by readers if I make them hungry?)
As a follow up question, people often ask if I like cooking or if I’m much good at it. I was even asked by an agent who read the first chapter if I’d actually been on a TV cookery programme. (She was reading the chapter for one-to-one feedback at York Festival of Writing — I’ve yet to submit it properly to her.)
Interestingly, the novel has various other ingredients too — a liberal seasoning of sex, for one thing — but no-one asks me the same kind of questions about that. So, partly to celebrate the newly-allocated extra database space which allows me to put even more photos on here, I’m going to use this blog post to demonstrate with lots of salacious photos that, despite the novel writing’s effect on the frequency with which I’m able to manage it, I still work enough on keeping my hand in to participate enthusiastically in the annual orgy
of gastronomy that is preparing Christmas dinner — a labour of love that started a whole month before the climax (beat that, Sting).
I’m not making any extreme claims of epicurean expertise. After all this is Christmas dinner — Sunday dinner on steroids — although some of the supermarket advertising on TV this year has stirred up controversy by suggesting this is beyond anyone but ‘mum’. My culinary achievements are much overshadowed by my old secondary school friend, David Wilkinson, who puts mouthwatering photos of his ambitious creations (such as Kale Chips and Fruit Kimchi — not together, though) on Facebook pages and his blog Nothing But Onions.
(He’s a better photographer than me too — as an aside, we both visited Abbey Road Studio Two together earlier this year — where the Beatles recorded almost all their songs and a fantastic experience I’ve yet to blog about.)
But now to my cooking. It would be interesting to see if my style of cooking has any parallels with the way I write. Perhaps there’s a parallel with my Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake making — a sensory profusion of fruity ingredients, loads of booze involved, it takes ages to get to the table and I made so much mixture that there’s still a bit left over in the fridge that I’m reluctant to throw away?
Looks rather unpromising in the bowl — mind you, the beer looks tempting — but on the day it will become the pièce de résistance.
Being a mild Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall type, especially when overdue for a haircut, I sourced my turkey from a relatively local farm (look out for the flooded River Thame in the background.)
Driving down the narrow lane to the farm I had several close encounters with other ethical turkey customers, many somewhat weakening their eco-credentials by driving tank-like 4x4s (probably using their vehicles for the only time in the year on the sort of road they were designed for).
In an even more River Cottage touch I had to drive through this on Christmas Eve — makes negotiating the Waitrose car park in Thame look slightly less of a perilous hazard by comparison (although it’s a mean middle-class battlefield when people stampede for the red sprouts and Heston puddings).
Turkey collected, it’s time to do all the boring, necessary stuff like chop all the veg. But being Christmas (and actually also because it’s miles cheaper than buying the stuff pre-made in the supermarket) I also made my own breadcrumbs.
These were destined for both the bacon-wrapped stuffing balls and, possibly my favourite dish of the whole meal, bread sauce.
I possess the basic cookery knowledge that chopped onion and garlic sweated a long time in a pan gives savoury dishes the flavour equivalent of a satisfying bass note — a subtle depth that’s usually only noticeable by its absence. A chopping board of alliums was given the sauna treatment.
I can’t say all this chopping and preparing is much fun but the exception is creating the clove studded onion that’s used to infuse the bread sauce. I always think it’s like a tiny alien space ship that’s landed in the pan of milk — or a mine, but that’s not very Christmassy.
The turkey giblets go into making proper stock — this precious home-made liquid that’s so much more nutritious and worthy than the cubed or powdered stuff but that still never seems to get used beyond the Christmas gravy.
While the preparations were underway, sustenance was needed for dinner on Christmas Eve so I baked some salmon in foil, marinaded in plenty of white wine, naturally. And, as Delia instructs, mince pies have to be baked to the strains of carols from King’s (or was it sausage rolls?). I also got ahead with the bread sauce, which looks far better in the pan that it eventually did in the serving dish but its savoury clove taste is appropriately divine.
Salmon, of the smoked variety cooked with scrambled egg also goes well with a glass of nice fizz on Christmas morning — something I first made after that Denis Healey ‘puts the top hat on it’ advert from the days when Sainsbury’s was almost as Waitrose as Waitrose. I don’t think Denis did it but marinading the salmon in cream overnight doesn’t seem to do any harm — nor adding a little flat-leaved parsley.
Refuelled by the Champagne Socialist scrambed eggs on toast, it was then to the main business of cooking the turkey and, most crucially, getting everything ready to serve with it. This is the aspect of Christmas dinner which I think is more like project management than cooking (and if my dinner had been delivered like some of the projects in the organisation where I do my day-job I think it would have been lucky to be on the table by New Year’s Day or Easter or, more likely be frazzled and cancelled altogether with the diners sent a huge bill).
Those roasties are pure foodie p&rn — ampersand to discourage spammers and perverts who I’m sure will be very disappointed to find only a well-greased King Edward. Even so, they’re enough to set my heart racing (although the accumulations of duck fat might slow it down a bit).
I guess this is also where cooking at home starts to slightly take on the stresses of a professional kitchen. Although they will be co-ordinating many dishes to many different times, it’s still quite gratifying to get the roast potatoes, pigs-in-blankets, sprouts, carrots and so on to the table before everything else goes cold.
Then there’s the Christmas tradition of being paranoid about whether the turkey is properly cooked or not. I looked through several different books, magazines and websites to find a consensus about how long to cook it and at what temperature — but they were all different. No wonder people get confused.
I probably cook mine longer than necessary but to stop it drying out I put some flavoursome things in the cavity — lemons, onions, herbs, garlic — but not too many to stop the air circulating. Instead of putting the stuffing inside the turkey, I use a method which isn’t for the squeamish (and for which it helps to have had a glass or two of early morning fizz) that involves pushing the stuffing into the neck and then between the skin of the breast and the meat underneath. It looks good when the turkey’s carved if it’s been worked through well enough under the skin.
That’s a rice, mushroom, apricot and pistachio stuffing, by the way. The breadcrumbs went into the ‘other stuffing’ with sausagemeat.
Of course, after a huge meal with unnecessary accompaniments like devils on horseback and homemade cranberry and orange sauce as well as all the above, it’s utter madness to follow it with even more calories but that’s what tradition — and Delia — insists on.
As well as Delia’s cake, I made a dessert that Delia may well have approved of but isn’t in her Christmas bible — a jelly made from almost 100% port — just a little added lemon juice. Next time I may add a bit of sugar to sweeten it but the jelly did its job of making everyone jolly — as did the cake, fed on a diet of brandy and calvados.
But to finish almost where this post started — the end result of that unpromising sludgy-stuff in the mixing bowl was repacked into its mould (again looking so much like an alien craft I wonder if it was made in Roswell), steamed for a couple of hours and then soaked in hot brandy and ritually immolated (a process bound to kill off any extra-terrestrial life-forms, just in case).
So, yes, I do cook but, like a few other interests, it’s something I’ve cut back on the time I spend doing while I’ve been writing this novel — although I do cook a lot more often than once a year, it’s the Christmas dinner that is the most intensive burst of activity so, given the general lack of other evidence of my foodie interests, hopefully this post has redressed the balance rather than been self-indulgent.
I suppose cooking a big meal is a bit like writing in that you put in a lot of preparation, transforming your ingredients into an something that you enjoy yourself but also hope that others will appreciate too. And hopefully both the writing and the Christmas dinner will leave a final impression that’s a little memorable and entertaining — there’s nothing quite like a flaming pudding.