Least Used Station in Buckinghamshire

It was my birthday a few weeks ago and my old school friend, David Wilkinson, sent me a most unusual and interesting present. It was a link to the YouTube video below.

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LB9JlpgBp9w[/embedyt]

 

It’s part of a series of videos uploaded by Geoff Marshall (who seems to the main presenter) in which he visits the least used railway station in an increasing number of counties.

And in this instalment, the seventh, he visits Buckinghamshire’s least used station, which happens to be the one that I use most frequently — Little Kimble.

He travels to Little Kimble from Marylebone, changing at Princes Risborough on to the famous (to train spotters, anyway) bubble car train that runs on the single track branch line to Little Kimble — and that I regularly use.

It’s worth watching the video to get a realistic impression this tiny train and the one platform station with zero facilities (it’s not even got a ticket machine) that I currently use virtually every day.

Geoff and his local guide from Aylesbury have a few interesting anecdotes about the station too, although they seem stumped for anything to do once they arrive there. An even more local guide, like me, would be able to point out that there’s a pub within about 15 minutes walk, although at the time of day they visited, they’d have to wait about three hours before it opened. There’s no shops or anywhere to get coffees, etc.

In the summer, the pub would be less than ten minutes walk away over a field, several stiles and a few footpaths. It’s similar with my shortest route to and from the station, which is now (and for the next two or three months) ankle-deep in mud in places.

That it’s so easy to reach this tiny country station in under an hour from Marylebone station (there are erratically timed direct trains using slightly more modern rolling stock too) shows the contrast between rural and urban that is a significant driver of conflict in the novel.

Fish, Chips and A Pint of Ale

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.

Cadsden -- Haunt of Chinese Presidents and Forgotten Prime-Ministerial Children
The Plough At Cadsden — Haunt of Chinese Presidents and Forgotten Prime-Ministerial Children

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?)

Inspector Barnaby's Favourite Haunt -- The Lions of Bledlow
Inspector Barnaby’s Favourite Haunt — The Lions of Bledlow

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.

Sweet Potato and Goats Cheese Pizza at Crate Brewery
Sweet Potato and Goats Cheese Pizza at Crate Brewery, Hackney Wick

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.

Enjoy the Street (or is it Canal?) Art With Your Pint
Enjoy the Street (or is it Canal?) Art With Your Pint

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.

I Don't Fancy Yours Much: a Pint of Crate Brewery's Unfiltered Craft Beer.
I Don’t Fancy Yours Much: a Pint of Crate Brewery’s Unfiltered Craft Beer.

When I started writing The 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.

Cereal Offenders

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.)

Do I Get A Michelin Star in One of these Boxes?
Do I Get A Michelin Star With One of these Boxes?

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.

Diggers Arrive in Sclater Street September 2015
Diggers Arrive in Sclater Street September 2015

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.)

Deep Foundations for All Those Luxury Cars?
Deep Foundations for All Those Luxury Cars?

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.

Sclater Street Car Park/Art Gallery May 2014
Sclater Street Car Park/Art Gallery May 2014

 

A Day of Two Halves

I hesitated outside the venue, sweat beading on my brow, nervous about what would await me inside.

I stepped over the threshold, walked into the bar, checking the place out – fairly empty, a mix of tourists and ale drinkers — not the gang I was gunning for. After all, it was a pub that was well known for its beer – but it wasn’t a need for anything alcoholic that I’d made the journey up to London. (If I’d have wanted beer I wouldn’t have passed up the invitation I’d been offered to visit a brewery on this very day. Isn’t that what real men did at the weekend?)  I was looking for novelists – romantic novelists – mean, hard-scribbling people.

They must be upstairs, holed-up in the function room already, the inner sanctum, doing whatever a group of women do in a place where, I guessed, no men dared to tread. I climbed fearfully up the staircase. Would I have to knock or would I stand there in the doorway, faced by heads turning faster and faster revealing stares of incredulity and shock. ‘What is he  doing here?’ 

And then I woke up . It was still Saturday morning. I could change my mind — and go to the brewery visit instead — not the London Chapter of the Romantic Novelists Association as I’d planned. I’ve blogged before (and on the RNA’s own blog) about the perceived gender issues associated with the romantic genre — and how, in reality, I’ve discovered there not to be any problems at all. But it’s one thing sending in a manuscript or e-mailing a blog post remotely and another actually meeting people face-to-face.

So deciding to go along to the London Chapter meeting of the RNA at the end of April did take a bit of courage — and maybe the thought of a little of the Dutch sort was quite appealing as the meeting was held above the Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Like most people, I expect most of my trepidation was because I’d be walking into a meeting not knowing anyone while anticipating that everyone else would have been friends for years. But there was still an element of anxiety at being male and walking into what was likely to be an overwhelmingly female meeting, if not exclusively.

But, I rationalise, that’s a good experience for a writer — there must be many occasions when women feel ‘different’ walking into a predominantly male gathering — and the feeling of being ‘other’ must, by definition, be common for people from minority backgrounds.

In the event, I was sweating uncomfortably when I did walk into the room but this was less to do with any nervousness at arriving at the meeting and more connected with having walked all the way from the Euston Road on a humid day.

Needless to say, I was actually made to feel extremely welcome by the organisers and, among the twenty-five or so attendees, there were two other men — one a husband of a member and another a writer. There were also a few other first-timers, including a very pleasant woman writer, whose husband had a job that almost cries out for novel treatment itself. He is Elvis. Or at least an Elvis tribute who is so popular overseas that he takes a whole touring show out to places like China. He apparently started off in a karaoke competition in a pub and it took off to the extent it eclipsed his day job and he went to being Elvis full-time. It shows how careers can grow out of  hobbies.

While it was a very sociable occasion, I was struck by hard-headed attitude of many of the established writers. This wasn’t a meeting that was the sort of exaggerated stereotype that some might imagine — of sighs over Christian Grey or discussion on Mr Darcy. It was the opposite — it was as business-like as any other conference or trade association meeting I’ve been to. For the more established writers, romantic fiction is a very much a business — one that provides an enjoyable and fulfilling livelihood.

This theme was emphasised by the guest speaker, Victoria Connelly, who gave a fascinating and very informative talk about how she juggles both traditional and self-published routes to market. As Victoria’s website shows, she’s written a very impressive back catalogue of books and her choice in publishing and marketing many of these titles herself (also employing her husband to help her) shows that once an author builds a market and readership then the self-publishing option can be as financially viable as traditional routes and allows much more independence for the author.

After the meeting I felt encouraged and invigorated by spending time with a group of writers who were not only friendly and welcoming but great examples of people who approach writing practically and successfully.

As mentioned in a previous post, I was also in London on that day to hear one of my short stories being read to an audience. Fay and Sabina, organisers of Studio 189′s Spring Ball, had heard Alex Woodhall’s excellent reading of Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line? at Liars’ League last year and when they had the idea of ‘something literary’ to entertain their guests on the evening, wondered if a repeat performance could be arranged.

Alex Woodhall Reading Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? at Studio 189's Spring Ball
Alex Woodhall Reading Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? at Studio 189’s Spring Ball

I was flattered to have been asked and fortunately Alex was free to repeat his performance. Studio 189 has a wonderful secluded garden, which where the Spring Ball’s entertainment had been planned — we’d earlier had a spectacular performance from an opera singer. However, the heavens opened and Alex had to do the reading inside. This meant grabbing the attention of the whole party for the duration of the story (there was nowhere to escape but into the rain).

It’s testimony to the effectiveness of Alex’s performance that the audience remained captivated by the reading for the full fifteen minutes or so of the story — with no audible side-conversations or distracted chat. And it was a big audience. Apparently over a hundred guests were at the party. It’s an exhilarating and addictive feeling to hear the words you’ve written providing pleasure and entertainment. Reading the expressions on the audience’s faces is much more immediate feedback on your writing than comments made a reader’s had some time to reflect (as happens with written work).

The Audience Listening to My Story (Me on the Extreme Right Possibly Suffering the Effects of the White Wine)
The Audience Listening to My Story (Me on the Extreme Right Possibly Suffering the Effects of the White Wine)

Oddly enough, it had been well over a year since I’d written the story and, perhaps I’d had too much wine, but I’d forgotten some of the details and some of the writing actually surprised me!

So thanks to Alex (who recently read another Liars’ League story in London) and Fay and Sabina who are organising several other intriguing events at Studio 189 — the latest being a sushi school and a comedy night.

It’s taken me a while to write it up (and apologies for the cryptic placeholder message that’s been on this site for a week or so) but that Saturday in April demonstrated several facets of the writers’ life — that, for most, it’s a business that needs hard work and a commercial focus but that knowing people enjoy something that you’ve created is immensely rewarding and fulfilling in a way that many other professions aren’t.

I’ll be going to the RNA Conference in July and look forward to meeting many other friendly and professionals writers there — and with much less trepidation.

Don’t forget that Do You Dare Me to Cross the Line? is still available to download as a Kindle book from Amazon along with three other Liars’ League stories of mine. I’m afraid the free promotional days have been used up for the time being and it’s currently £1.99 — but that’s still less than the price of even a Prêt coffee.

Shoreditch and the City — Killing the Hipster Goose?

The first part of my novel — and some of the later action — is set in Shoreditch. I first got to know the area when I was taking the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio). Although City University itself is about a mile or so west of Shoreditch (I know this as I walked the exact journey last week), it led me to start looking around adjacent areas of London.

I can’t remember whether I’d decided to write a novel with an artist as a main protagonist before I came across Village Underground (and its rooftop tube trains) in the Secret London guidebook. However, very shortly after reading about this artistic community space with an events venue underneath, I’d been up on the roof to visit for myself and had the start of a novel set in what was then, despite some creeping commercialism, a part of London that had a genuine alternative and bohemian feel.

Graffiti Art on Rooftop Tube Carriages
On the Roof at Village Underground

What’s most fascinated about Shoreditch, as opposed to further flung artistic enclaves like Hackney Wick, is its location right on the edge of the City of London — in the novel this geographical closeness enables the two characters from completely different world to meet.

Avant Garde Tower Bethnal Green Road 2015
Avant Garde Tower, Bethnal Green Road 2015

Apart from one residential block, the very unironically named Avant Garde tower at the corner of Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road, there’s been surprisingly little encroachment by property developers exploiting Shoreditch’s position on the City’s northern fringes.

The Broadgate Tower Seen from Village Underground 2011
The Broadgate Tower Seen from Village Underground 2011

The Broadgate development (seen above) was completed in 2008 and, since then, the City seems to have grown upwards with the likes of the Walkie Talkie, Heron Tower, Cheesegrater and Shard (albeit on the other side of the river).

Holywell Street, Shoreditch
Holywell Street, Shoreditch, March 2011

While the character of Shoreditch has undoubtedly changed with the arrival of the Overground and Shoreditch High Street station plus associated developments like Boxpark, the physical environment has changed little from when I first got to know the area (and probably hasn’t changed that much since the area was first industrialised).

I put this hiatus in development down to the delayed effects of the 2008 credit crunch and its consequences.

Village Underground Viewed from the new London Overground
Village Underground Viewed from the Shoreditch Overground Viaduct, March 2011

This is all about to change and, sadly for the Shoreditch I’ve come to know, I feel that the last few years will come to be seen as a stay of execution for one of London’s most characterful areas. As an example, since the New Year, the car park on waste ground opposite Village Underground seen in the photo above has seen construction activity begin — and it’s deep piling work that’s being carried out — of the type required for the foundations of very tall buildings.

Those who have been on street art tours of Shoreditch will know this car park as one of the areas that featured the most frequently changing graffiti art. Now it’s fenced off and will soon be transformed into a ‘mixed use’ development called Shoreditch Village — the first part of which will be a ten storey Citizen M boutique hotel, due to open by this time next year. For an artist’s impression of the finished site, click on this story.

Breaking the Ground for Shoreditch Village, 20th February 2015
Breaking the Ground for Shoreditch Village, 20th February 2015

This development is relatively modest but it will still tower over all the buildings in the immediate area — and will change the character of Village Underground. It used to be a quirk that the tube trains were, ironically, the highest point in the local area and, counter-intuitively, looked down on everything below. Soon all the trendy guests in the hotel will spy on them from above.

Iranian Artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo Painting A Mural At Village Undergroun, 20th February 2015
Iranian Artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo Painting A Mural At Village Underground, 20th February 2015 (for finished picture see this Guardian article)

For a taste of what the area around Village Underground may look like in a year or two, then take a walk a mile or so to the area to the north and west of Old Street/’Silicon Roundabout’ (known also in the media as the risibly-named Tech City).

The area around the City Road Basin on the Regent’s Canal is undergoing a dramatic change with several huge, upmarket apartment blocks currently being constructed. This is  a huge change for an area that, even when I was doing the City University novel-writing course, in 2009-10, was still genuinely down-at-heel and post-industrial, unlike Shoreditch. There’s even a drive-through McDonald’s there — which would be unimaginable down the road in Shoreditch.

Skyscrapers on City Road, February 2015
Skyscrapers on City Road, February 2015

Construction on one or two of the tower blocks was started, and then paused, during the recession and, like Shoreditch, the areas of derelict land and waste ground were likely to have been earmarked for development that was put on hold. But no longer. The construction has restarted and the place will soon change forever.

There’s a scene in the novel based in the City Road area, near the canal, as at the start of the book Kim works in a pub that’s based on the Wenlock Arms, which has near-legendary status amongst serious beer drinkers for being one of the very few basic, spit-and-sawdust, unreconstructed back-street boozer that wasn’t too far from a central tube station. in a  location.

The Reopened Wenlock Arms, February 2015
The Reopened Wenlock Arms, February 2015

The Wenlock itself was victim to the gentrification of the area. It was closed a few years ago and was threatened with development into flats. After a landmark local campaign to get the pub protected by Hackney council (of which I was a supporter) it has now been included in a conservation area and has since been rescued and sympathetically refurbished. The holes in floorboards and barely functioning toilets have gone to be replaced by craft beers and trendy square hand-basins but it’s now thriving again.

Shoreditch Village is nothing compared with some new developments that are either in the pipeline or currently going through the planning process. Plans for the Bishopsgate Goods Yard site around Shoreditch High Street station are so dramatic that Hackney’s mayor (Shoreditch is on the fringes of both Hackney and Tower Hamlets) has started a petition on Change.org to protest to Boris Johnson about his decision in principle to approve them.

Prime Real Estate: Shoreditch Old Goods Yard Site, early 2015
Prime Real Estate: Shoreditch Old Goods Yard Site, early 2015

This is a massive development site, derelict for over fifty years after a fire destroyed the old railways goods yard that previously occupied the site. Shoreditch High Street station has been built on some of the area — and the reason why the railway is enclosed in a concrete box in the station is to allow building work to commence without disrupting the railway that runs through the site.

But the developers plans are equally huge — they include seven tower blocks, with two forty-six storeys high (much bigger than those pictured on City Road above). A little of this will be affordable housing but it’s inconceivable that the character of Shoreditch (and the Brick Lane area to the east) will remain unchanged with development of such scale encroaching almost into the heart of the area.

The likes of Pret a Manger and Pizza Express are one thing but, if the development is anything like One New Change, Cardinal Place in Victoria or the many in Canary Wharf, then there will be less galleries, oddball clothes shops and organic cafes in Shoreditch and many more familiar names from any high street.

It would be somewhere that my artist character Kim would never contemplate living or working in. And so my novel might, perhaps, have captured a particular moment in the development of Shoreditch — when it had established itself as quirky, creative and fascinating and when the hipsters could enjoy the place in almost suspended animation for a few years. Now it’s in danger of the City speculators moved in to kill the goose that laid their golden egg. Let’s hope not. Sign the petition.

Killing the Goose: Trendy Shoreditch AND 11 Storey Apartment Blocks?
Killing the Goose: Trendy Shoreditch AND 11 Storey Apartment Blocks?

Before I Die

For the last few months the day job has led to me working most days in Southwark — right by the Thames — a stone’s throw from the Tate Modern and Globe Theatre and in a building that actually preserves the remains of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in its foundations.

It’s a wonderful area to stroll around at lunchtime in the winter — both full of history but also still undergoing a transition from a grimy, industrial area in the post-war period to a rejuvenated cultural corner of London. The Tate Modern and the Globe are the most obvious examples but there are also plenty of places like the Jerwood Space and the Menier Chocolate Factory that are examples of old warehouses being repurposed into arts venues.

View From Southwark Bridge Late 2014
View From Southwark Bridge Late 2014

The river also seems to demarcate the cultural divide. It’s exhilarating to walk out of an office and have an immediate view of some of the most iconic buildings in the country (if not the world) — like the Shard, Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie and others — but walk half a mile down Southwark Bridge Road and you’ll be in some the most deprived parts of London.

There are still plenty of semi-derilict spaces, like the poignant Cross Bones Graveyard, and the area towards Elephant and Castle, where I finally located the Ministry of Sound.

The feel of the place was summed up to me by a blackboard I saw outside a greasy caff very close to the Tate Modern, which seemed to draw most of its clientele from the builders who are busy demolishing or smashing through warehouses to create ultra-luxury penthouses or art spaces, like the Tate Modern extension.

The blackboard showed changing daily specials, usually involving chips or all-day breakfasts. I looked a bit more closely one day at this interesting menu — something which perhaps says something profound about post-industrial Britain?

On the Menu -- Sausage Mash and Unions
On the Menu — Sausage Mash and Unions

And speaking of blackboards, I was strolling along Union Street in Southwark when I came across this larger blackboard, which I discovered was part of a global network of similar blackboards all based on the simple concept of asking people to chalk up an ambition they’d like to achieve ‘before I die’.

The Before I Die concept was accidentally started in 2011 in New Orleans by artist Candy Chang who set up the first wall on a derict building while grieving over the death of a loved one. (The full story can be read on the Before I Die website.) Since then the concept has spread to many other cities across the world (at least 150 or so), including several in London.

Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1
Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1

The board on Union Street (actually in a small square tucked away behind a railway viaduct called Flat Iron Square) was apparently the first of the chalkboards in London and had been up for about a year before I came across it.

I’m afraid that this board is no longer there, having presumably been removed a few weeks ago as part of the Thameslink/London Bridge viaduct works it was originally created to shield (as part of the Bankside Merge festival — see link above).

The idea behind the blackboards is brutally direct and straightforward — going to the heart of what motivates people — and reading through the anonymous, public declarations is a fascinating experience for anyone who writes fiction — or wants to understand the human condition in any other way.

As my photographs show, while there was some crass vandalism and pure obscenity chalked up on the board, this was surprisingly hugely outweighed by the clearly genuine sentiments that had stood out through the jumble of over-written messages — and perhaps they were all the more heartfelt from having been scrawled on the way back home after a well lubricated night at a pub or club.

Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1
Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1

It’s a well known truism that no-one on their deathbed says they wished they had spent more time in the office, although plenty of people seem to ignore this in their own working lives. (I’m not sure whether to pity or respect people who get all the self-fulfillment they need from corporate life — on the one hand it must be gratifying to be paid to do the thing you most enjoy, but on the other you think they don’t realise the value of all the other things they haven’t experienced — a bit like blissful farm animals.)

Nevertheless, I’ve not spotted any comment on these chalkboard like ‘I want to be promoted’, ‘I want a comfortable pension’ or ‘I’d like the desk near the window’. Maybe if one of these chalkboards was put right outside a corporate HQ then it would be full of such ambitions but, even there, I doubt it.

Most of the comments seem to be on the themes of relationships (or ambitions that might help people improve their relationships) or travel — which are two of the subjects with which a large amount of fiction is concerned. (There’s also a more general theme of ambition and self-fulfillment, which tends to include both the first two categories.)

I’ll point out a few of the comments that particularly amused or intrigued me although you may be able to decipher some of the other comments in the following photos.

Before I Die -- Union Street SE1
Before I Die I Want to Visit Hull

In addition to someone wanting to meet Ed Sheeran (pop stars recurred on the board), fear nothing and stop worrying was the more modest ambition of visiting Hull ‘City of Culture’ (interesting when the board is about quarter of a mile from where the greatest writer in world history wrote his plays).

Before I Die -- Gallery and Italy
Before I Die — Gallery and Italy

This section of the board shows the ‘official art project’ notice linking the board to the Bankside Merge festival and has a nice combination of travel, artistic ambition and romance: ‘I want to live in Italy’, ‘I want to own my own gallery’ and ‘I will make Emma my woman’.

And as well as relationship aspirations there are plenty of messages of pure desire and lust — especially about someone called H Styles.

I Want All Women To Be the Same Size as Taylor Swift
I Want All Women To Be the Same Size as Taylor Swift

I found the message slightly buried in the centre of the photo quite intriguing: ‘I want all women to be the same size as Taylor Swift’ to which someone else has appended ‘but with a brain’.

Before I Die -- Union Street -- I Want to Have More Than Average
Before I Die — Union Street — I Want to Have More Than Average

And perhaps the most honest (and it seems to have some pointed phrasing that makes it particularly heartfelt) is on the left of this photo: ‘I want to have more than average tits!’

It would be interesting for anyone writing a novel to take a few minutes and consider what their characters might write on a blackboard like this — what’s most important to them, what do they really want to achieve, whom do they lust after?

When I took my photos I couldn’t see any chalk available to add my own contribution — and I think I could think of quite a few to scrawl on there — but there’s one ambition I don’t really need to chalk. The whole of this blog is dedicated to it.

December is for Displacement Activity

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).

From This Fruity Mess at the end of November...
From This Fruity Mess at the end of November…

 

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

To This Beauty on Christmas Day
…To This Beauty on Christmas Day

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).

Picking Sloes October 2014
Picking Sloes October 2014

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

Bottled Sloe Gin December 2014
Bottled Sloe Gin December 2014

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.

Bronte Parsonage Museum
Bronte Parsonage Museum

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.

Stockholm Waterfront  in December
Stockholm Waterfront in December

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

Yes, It Might Be Juvenile But This Still Cracked Me Up
Yes, It Might Be Juvenile But This Still Cracked Me Up

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

Guess Who's the English Tourist with the Boots Carrier Bag
Guess Who’s the English Tourist with the Boots Carrier Bag

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.

Owlswick Morris with their female Father Christmas and cross-dressing St. George
Owlswick Morris with their female Father Christmas and cross-dressing St. George

While I witnessed it much too late to go into the novel, I’d have

The Doctor Arrives
The Doctor Arrives

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.

Redchurch Brewery Shoreditch Blonde
Redchurch Brewery Shoreditch Blonde

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.

Toasting the Shoreditch Blonde
Toasting the Shoreditch Blonde, New Year’s Eve 2014

Le Grand Départ

A Suitably British Place to Watch the Tour de France
A Suitably British Place to Watch the Tour de France

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 French Advance on Buckingham Palace
The French Advance on Buckingham Palace

The road that connects Buckingham Palace with the Houses of Parliament — the axis of British government — was invaded on 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.

Spot the Beefeater
Spot the Beefeater

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.

Not Exactly Trooping the Colour on Birdcage Walk
Not Exactly Trooping the Colour on Birdcage Walk

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.

Tower of London and the Shard Wait for the Tour de France
Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and the Shard Wait for the Tour de France

Do you think the Tour de France confounded the Eurosceptic stereotypes — I’d love to read any comments below.

The Sad Demolition of the King’s Head, Old Vine and Windmill

The Angel  is partly set in an outwardly idyllic English country pub — thatched roof, low beams, flagstoned floors and looking out through its mullioned windows on to the village green with its cricket pitch and duck pond. It’s a slightly idealised amalgam of several pubs I know but all the constituent elements can be found in about half a dozen pubs I know well within about a ten mile radius.

The Crown, Cuddington
The Crown, Cuddington

If my descriptions of the pubs are adequate then it may not be too difficult to evoke visual images in readers as most of these pubs have been used several times over for dramas like Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders.

The Lions of Bledlow -- One of Inspector Barnaby's Favourite Haunts
The Lions of Bledlow — One of Inspector Barnaby’s Favourite Haunts

The image of the Olde English Pub is curious because, while it’s something of a stereotype, it’s not an exaggeration of reality. These iconic places still exist (thrive might be too strong a verb in the current economic climate) and, in weather such as the current heatwave, we’re reminded what a fundamental element of the British national identity the village pub evokes. (And a village pub doesn’t have to be in the countryside — there are plenty of old pubs subsumed into urban areas that still retain that bucolic character. The White Swan in Twickenham is a good example as are some pubs in the most unlikely areas of London and other large cities.)

In terms of visual iconography, I was fascinated to discover how the promoters of British Summer Time interpreted the English village pub. This was the series of concerts in Hyde Park which featured the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi amongst others. It replaced Hard Rock Calling after the infamous incident last year when the plug was pulled on Bruce Springsteen duetting with Paul McCartney as at 10.30pm they were disturbing the tranquility of Mayfair — on the other side of the six-lane inner-ring road that is Park Lane.

I don’t have too much sympathy, having had to endure student house parties with hundreds of ‘guests’, drugged, drunk and very loud at 3am in the morning when living in London myself.

Rather than the standard festival back-of-a-trailer bar, British Summer Time had themed areas for its catering and drinks. When I visited last week between concerts (when the British Summer Time compound, for want of a better word, was free to enter) the Spanish themed area was a dusty and deserted assortment of hastily-erected restaurants and bars — so not that different to contemporary Spain in the Euro crisis then?

The Lions of Bledlow -- One of Inspector Barnaby's Favourite Haunts
The King’s Head, Hyde Park

In the Village Green area I found three adjacent ‘pubs’ — the Old Vine, the King’s Head (with Henry VIII naturally on the sign) and the Windmil . Given that these catering outlets, oops, I mean pubs were operational for only nine days and had been constructed on a patch of grass in the middle of Hyde Park then historical authenticity was a little too much to ask for.

King's Head and Windmill, Hyde Park
King’s Head and Windmill, Hyde Park

I was fairly impressed with the way the architectural styles had been repesented, particularly the Windmill, which was quite imaginative and stresses the historical link between windmills and pubs. If  you want to experience the inns of Tolkien’s Shire then visit the Pheasant in Brill, Buckinghamshire while we still have light nights. The village was apparently the model for Bree — it’s not too far from Oxford — and has a marvelously restored windmill by the pub on the top of the hill.

Inside the King's Head
Inside the King’s Head

The interior of the King’s Head looked pretty authentic — despite being a prefabricated box its fixtures and fittings and decor were surprisingly genuine.

What wasn’t usual was the way the ‘pubs’ served from a bar on their exterior walls. Occasionally some pubs do this in the summer — the White Cross in Richmond used to. However, the demands of serving 60,000 people in an interval are probably not quite the same as the village local at tea-time in a cricket match.

And sadly, while the ‘pubs’ made efforts to be surprisingly authentic in appearance, they didn’t serve the traditional drink of the British pub — cask-conditioned real ale — at least not in its most genuine form. There was Fuller’s London Pride and Theakston’s Bitter plus Seafarer on offer but I’m fairly sure it was pasteurised — although it was served at a appropriately cool temperature unlike some genuine pubs try to get away with in this weather with real ale — which tastes ghastly if warm.

Old Vine, Hyde Park
Old Vine, Hyde Park

But at £5.50 a pint the pricing strategy of these pubs was only suited to the sort of captive market that spends hundred on tickets for the Rolling Stones. Having had our wallets lightened somewhat I moved on with my drinking companions to the slightly more gritty reality of the Carpenters Arms on Seymour Place.

It’s probably too late to get on to CAMRA head office about the closure of three adjacent pubs in Central London. While we can’t really complain about the demolition of  the King’s Head, Old Vine and Windmill — I noted the lorries in there this week removing all trace of their presence — but their appearance was culturally reassuring, if a little personally expensive.

Falling, Yes I Am Falling

Me Falling at Amy Sharrocks's Studio in Chelsea
Me Falling at Amy Sharrocks’s Studio in Chelsea

The photo above is not, as my friends at Love Art London tweeted, me doing a ‘flying squirrel impression’ but me being a serious, living artwork in Amy Sharrocks’ studio in Chelsea — and she’s a real artist! To my mind it the pose somewhat resembles a rather unenthusiastic induction into some alien giant lizard-worshipping cult crossed with a pathetic attempt to obtain the worst Olympic gymnastic score of all time.

But despite making me look rather odd, the photo — taken by one of Amy’s friends and passed on to me by Love Art London — is effective in illustrating the concept behind the performance art that Amy is currently working on. It’s all about falling. And in the photo I’m just on the cusp of falling — that point when I’ve leant so far forward I’ve breached the point of no return where I know the what’s coming is inevitable but mostly out of my control.

I’d been curious, not to say suspicious, that anyone could produce art about people falling over and that’s why I signed up for the Love Art London studio visit — and the prospect of leaping around on crash mats also appealed (an invigorating change from the usual standing respectfully in front of an artwork to muse upon its qualities).

The studio in which Amy is based for her On Falling residency is a piece of history in its own right — having been used by the renowned sculptor, Elisabeth Frink — apparently she appeared on a commemorative stamp as a woman of achievement in 1996 and is responsible for the curious Shepherd and Sheep sculpture that’s displayed prominently in Paternoster Square.

Elizabeth Frink Sculpture - Paternoster Square
Elisabeth Frink Sculpture – Paternoster Square

The studio is part of a block that was purpose-built in the nineteenth century for artists in Chelsea and is still leased out for limited periods to contemporary artists.

Amy started by showing us a wall of ‘falling words’ (to the right of the photo) that she’d arranged thematically — so negative words like, say, stumble or drop were clustered in one corner and more positive words like dive or cascade would be elsewhere — similarly with other interpretations. It was quite thought-provoking but not exactly what I’d call art.

In fact, it didn’t dissuade me from thinking that the whole thing was a bit, well, bonkers.

Then Amy took us through a photographic falling wall of about a hundred or so images of falling — some were of Amy herself — impressive profile silhouettes of her in the ‘about-to-topple’ position that I’m captured in above, although her images are far more graceful. There were other photos from the work Amy has been doing in the community about falling (and some of her previous works) plus more general images — some quite well-known and, in cases, harrowing, like people falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Amy also mentioned some of the other work she’s done around London and I was pleasantly surprised that she’s the artist behind the Museum of Water — another slightly bizarre but strangely thoughtful initiative that I’d read about this in (probably) the Evening Standard (although it may also have been in Time Out or on Londonist). I’d been really interested in going along to the Soho installation when I’d read about it (but all is not lost, apparently it’s touring the country with it from the autumn onwards).

The water that’s preserved in the museum is water in the loosest sense — one exhibit is a six-year old girl’s phial of tears, others are donated urine in its various appearances. (At this point I shall resist the temptation to pun about taking the proverbial.)

I didn’t realise when I booked with Love Art London to come on the Falling event that Amy was behind both initiatives — but maybe there was something a bit subconscious going on? Perhaps Amy’s imaginative selection of subjects aligns with my own interests?

Mind you, I doubt I’ll be participating in an event she’s hoping to organise in 2015 — a mass swim across the Thames at the point where it’s crossed by Tower Bridge. Amy’s hopeful of getting Boris Johnson onboard — or maybe overboard — for this extension of her Swim London event. (Like the Museum of Water, this Thames-swimming project has had a fair bit of coverage in the press.)

Captivating as all Amy’s pictures and past work was, I was itching to start bouncing around on the crash mat — it was originally located in the garden but had to be dragged into the studio itself as it began to rain. And stepping off a ramp that’s possibly slippy and falling on to a crash mat that’s been rained on would no doubt set health and safety alarm bells ringing somewhere. (Coincidentally, despite the apparent minimal risk involved in falling from a few feet on to a mat that seems to be adequate for pole valuting, there has been some serious head-scratching by powers that be about Amy’s plans to involve the public in her Falling performance art.)

When I thought it was about time that we all started falling over in earnest, Amy turned the tables on us would-be art connoisseurs  and asked for us to share our ‘falling experiences’.  This was surprisingly interesting — people talked about the experience of falling asleep (where one of our number said there’s a scientific name for the feeling you sometimes get of suddenly dropping when you’re on the cusp of falling asleep).

This discussion was very interesting, covering many different types of falling, and made me understand, for the first time, that perhaps Amy had found a subject that was both profoundly universal and open to many different interpretations.

And then, eventually, we were able to put the theory into practice. I was second up after our Love Art London host, who’d done it before. Falling face first, from a height of less than a metre into a crash mat seems simple –it’s nothing like as scary on paper as some of the highwire and zipwire course I’ve done — I fastened myself in the Trossachs (sounds like a Les Dawson joke) to a Go Ape! zipwire that was 400m long and 150ft above a valley.

But in those instances there’s something that will support you (the fear of falling is of anything going wrong) whereas to fall voluntarily, even from a small height, with no support is a peculiarly unsettling experience. There is definitely a split-second when you realise there’s no going back and a bit of panic sets until until you’ve worked out the best way to break the fall. (I think I bottled it a little by bending my legs to decrease the momentum).

One of the most interesting observations Amy makes about watching many people falling in this way is how quickly people get up. Being prone on your front, especially with others gathered around, is arguably an instinctively vulnerable position and while in this type of environment participants don’t feel physically threatened, they have no control or knowledge of the way that the spectators are viewing them — a situation with which, it was suggested,  women were particularly uncomfortable in public.

About half-a-dozen of us had a go at falling — it certainly wasn’t obligatory — and a couple decided to fall backwards, which must be more nerve-wracking to do at the start but does avoid the face-down indignity afterwards. We all had a really interesting and open sharing of our experiences once we’d fallen. And we’d had so much fun talking and falling that we overran and had to head home (or to the pub).

But was it art? Well, officially, it definitely is as Amy is supported by the Royal British Society of Sculptors, amongst others. However, I’d come away from the event having been made to view something as apparently obvious and familiar in a much different and thought-provoking way — and surely that’s the very purpose of all good art in its widest sense?

Eurovision, Bowie and Homogeneity

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.

My Cheesy Olivia Newton John Collection
My Cheesy Olivia Newton John Collection

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.)

 

Radio Times 25th May 2013
Radio Times 25th May 2013

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.

David Bowie Is Inside
David Bowie Is Inside

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.

Alexis Cole — Transcendence

One of the questions that recurs in my novel is the importance of  location — especially for artists.In my novel Kim is a German artist who has arrived to London from Berlin in the expectation that it’s the place to be to make her name in the world of modern art. During the novel she also experiences the bucolic joys of the rural England that can still can be found, surprisingly, less than forty miles from grungy Shoreditch.

While it could be argued that Dalston, Stoke Newington, Hackney Wick or further flung places are where the artistic action is now happening, the spiritual homeland of contemporary urban art in London (if not the world) is still the Shoreditch/Hoxton/Brick Lane area. It’s been deserted by the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the late 90s (the group that included Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst and the subject of the interestingly titled Lucky Kunsts by Gregor Muir (although there’s a big Hirst formaldehyde thing apparently in the new Tramshed restaurant on Rivington Street). However, the place is becoming more corporatised with the arrival of the likes of Google in ‘Tech City’ at Old Street Roundabout — and endorsements by the likes of Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

As an aside, I met Mat Collishaw (apparently Emin’s ex) in person at a Love Art London event a few weeks ago at Blaine Southern in Hanover Square at his most recent exhibition — where his painting were going for £110,000 a piece.

Nevertheless, the locality still attracts the most infamous graffiti artists and is stuffed with galleries. I recently followed a walk from Hoxton Overground station via Shoreditch to Old Street in Stephen Millar’s London’s Hidden Walks 2 and found plenty of urban grittiness only a street or two away from where the hipsters hang out — at the top of Hoxton Street, for example.

The association of artists with the Shoreditch area suggests that location is an important factor for artists to attract attention from dealers, critics and buyers. It has a long historical precedent: some of the best known painters often made long journeys to their best markets. In Beak Street in Soho a plaque marks the location where Canaletto stayed for two years in the eighteenth century. He came to London to sell his pictures to patrons who liked reminders of the Grand Tour. Appropriately enough, the building now houses the Venetian-inspired restaurant, Polpo.

So having written about an artist who comes from Shoreditch and spends time in the Chilterns, I was fascinated to read a story on my local newspaper’s website about an artist who was was, in a way, doing the opposite.

Alexis Cole is an artist who works from home in Thame (which is a picturesque Oxfordshire market town with a huge main street with many good pubs about 45 miles out of London). Co-incidentally, like Kim, she comes from Europe — Croatia in Alexis’s case, although, when you meet her, it’s obvious she’s lived in this country for a while (she went to university here).

Alexis Cole in Brick Lane Gallery Annexe
Alexis Cole in Brick Lane Gallery Annexe

This was the first time Alexis  had exhibited her work at a gallery and she chose to do so not in rural Thame but in the heart of the London contemporary art scene — at the  Brick Lane Gallery Annexe (on Sclater Street, which connects Brick Lane with Shoreditch High Street Overground station). It’s a location that’s bang in the middle of the arty fringes of the City — close to Redchurch Street.

Alexis exhibited work in three broad genres: papier mache flowers (which were very popular); pastel pictures, generally of animals or geographical destinations; and abstract acrylic paintings that often had objects embedded in the surface. The last style reminded me of a cross between the abstract squares of colour of Mark Rothko and the collages of Kurt Schwitters — the German artist  whose work can currently be seen in an an exhibition at Tate Britain (and mentioned previously in this blog post).

Surf and Microshines
Surf and Microshines

I got in touch with Alexis, explaining my interest, and visited her show, Transcendence, at the gallery the day after it opened in March. (It’s probably not giving away any spoilers about the novel to say that it wouldn’t be much of a story involving an artist if she didn’t put on any exhibitions.)

And I was impressed by Alexis’s artwork — as were other visitors. I’ve included a few photos of my favourite examples of Alexis’s artwork with this blog post, along with a photo of the artist herself, although as they were taken with a phone camera, they don’t do justice to the exhibition.

Alexis’s website (click here for the link) has much better photographs of the paintings and I’d recommend visiting it, although the three-dimensional works, like the collages and flowers need to be seen properly in person.

As this blog shows, I’ve tried to learn over the past couple of year more about how book publishing  operates and I’m also interested how it compares with the market for art — an issue that’s close to the heart of my character, Kim.

Three Pictures by Alexis Cole
Three Pictures by Alexis Cole

As far as I can tell, the art market appears to work in a less structured way because artworks are individual entities (or scarce copies in the case of numbered prints). This means they’re far more expensive to buy than books. For example the Battersea Affordable Art Fair which I attended recently with Love Art London defines ‘affordable’ as anything under £4,000.

By contrast, the written word is, in essence, intangible: like recorded music, once the work has been created it can be copied an infinite number of times. However, in the physical world, the fixed costs of printing a book are high. Aside from editing and marketing a book, publishers provide the large amounts of capital that funds book printing and distribution — a formidable barrier to entry for new writers.

On the other hand, an artist has to spend money on materials, whereas all a novelist needs is, arguably, paper and ink. (A Windows 95 spec computer with a prehistoric version of Word is good enough to write a manuscript — and, as for a fast internet connection, the likes of Twitter probably erodes any of potential productivity gain.)

Yet the artist creates an object that can immediately be sold (unless it’s performance or conceptual art) whereas the writer’s work results in a file on the computer or, without efficient printing technology, a heavy wad of A4 paper wrapped with an elastic band.

Darkshines
Darkshines

Given that, in all but the most extreme cases, a book takes longer to create than a piece of art, the writer needs to sell a substantial number of copies of a work just to cover the cost of its production (let alone make any income from the time spent writing it). Conversely an artist will sell a lesser number of works but they’ll usually be individually created (hence the controversy over the value of works that are very similar, like Damien Hirst’s spot paintings).

To market their work, an artist needs an exhibition space and then a means of attracting potential customers to it. Commercial galleries will often provide these functions in exchange for a substantial cut of the selling price of an artwork (many represent artists exclusively).

However, there are many other ways for artists to engage directly with their customers — it could be as simple as hiring a gallery space, hanging the art on the wall with a price tag and creating as much publicity as possible or maybe just hope for word of mouth to take off.  There are also plenty of routes to market outside the traditional gallery channels for artists — for example, I know of a number of pubs that have dedicated art gallery spaces or are keen to showcase local artists’ work for sale.

No one opens a pop-up bookshop to sell their self-published novel — books have tended to be sold through a relatively limited number of outlets. Because of the small absolute profit made on books, they need to be sold in quantity — and in a place where they’re in competition with many other alternative titles.

Amazon is arguably even more dominant of the ebook market than Waterstones or the supermarkets are over the printed book. However, the marginal cost of reproducing ebooks is tiny and it is easy to list an ebook for sale on their site (albeit along with millions of anonymous titles) — and these factors may start to make the book market start to take on more similarities with the art market. For example, intermediaries (publishers, agents, booksellers) might be circumvented by those who can raise their visibility in the market by other means.

How artists measure their own success?

Certainly, as with writers, one substantial achievement would be to make a living from their artwork. Surprisingly few writers are able to survive on income from book royalties alone but there is a fairly well-defined progression of levels through which writers progress — a bit like a computer game. For example, being represented by an agent, getting a publishing deal are daunting hurdles to clear. And once published there are many stark metrics by which publishing is analysed — Nielsen Bookscan figures, Amazon ratings, etc.

It’s true that the art world has many prizes that are keenly contested, as does the literary world. However, there’s no equivalent of the Sunday Times Top Bestseller list for artists — which raises fundamental issues about how much of a commodity books are, as opposed to examples of creative art that can’t be ranked by sales figures.

Alexis was very happy with the exhibition — e-mailing me afterwards to say she was thrilled about how it had gone. She received some useful feedback from viewers of her work, sold several paintings and received some commissions. With a steady stream of inquisitive visitors to the gallery, the Brick Lane location seems to have worked well for Alexis.

 

Looking At The View

Sunrise Over Beacon Hill
Sunrise Over Beacon Hill

I was walking to the station a few days ago — the long way round because the footpath over the fields is too muddy (see the melting snow in the photo) and noticed a wonderful sunrise emerging over the tops of the Chiltern Hills, specifically Beacon Hill and Pulpit Hill (to the left and right respectively). I took a quick couple of photos with my phone and thought no more about them until I came to download some other photos to my laptop — and then was blown away by the way the camera had captured the moment. (The photo above hasn’t been altered in colour by any photo-editing software).

The beaming, beacon-like sun means I like this photo in a slightly superstitious, borderline-karmic way too because in my mind, the imaginary village where much of the novel is located approximately under where the sun is breaking through the clouds — just on over the scarp of Chilterns. In reality, there is already a steaming hot-bed of scandal and highly-secret political intrigue nestling on the other side of those hills. It’s called Chequers — and while what goes on in there is no doubt stranger than fiction, its stories are subject to the hundred years rule.

There’s something also a little Turner-like about the yellow blast of light spilling over so much of the sky between the hills, which also ties in with the novel. One of the reasons Kim considers leaving London for the countryside is that she wants to paint landscapes — something there’s limited scope to do in Shoreditch and Hackney. A German artist coming to Britain also draws on a strong tradition for landscape painting common to both countries — and a subject I’ve been learning about as I’ve been writing the novel.

Caspar David Friedrich is a dominant figure in early nineteenth century German art and his  landscape paintings depict a romantic melancholy that, it could be argued, reflects a strand of the German character – certainly a phlegmatic love of the open-air. I recently went to a lunchtime lecture at the National Gallery titled Caspar David Friedrich and the Tragedy of the Landscapewhich rattled through slides of dozens of his paintings, accompanied by an illuminating commentary. Kim will know Friedrich inside out.

Friedrich was a contemporary of the great British Romantic landscape artists, notably Constable and Turner, whose most famous paintings, such as The Hay Wain or The Fighting Temeraire, hang in the likes of the National Gallery. I went to the last weekend of the current Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday and saw a few of the lesser known paintings by the famous three in the exhibition’s title, as well as examples by many of their lesser known predecessors. Turner’s fishing rod was also exhibited!

However, the National Gallery’s Room 34, in which those two painting hang either side of the entrance door, always awes me. Unlike writers, whose physical works are interesting curiosities but lose nothing in reproduction, painters’ original works are fascinating in person because of their physicality. It’s fascinating to stand close to the Turners, in particular, and see the brush strokes and the varying thicknesses of paint on the canvas — there’s a direct connection between artist and viewer that’s unique in painting.

I had the chance at the Tate Britain’s new Looking at the View landscape exhibition to see the original of a print that hangs on the wall above my computer at home — John Nash’s wonderful The Cornfield (sadly the Tate’s website doesn’t show an image of the painting but instead suggests his The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimblewhich is of a landscape less half a mile away from where I’m currently typing).

I’d looked before for The Cornfield in the Tate and found it not on display so was very pleased to see it hung in the exhibition. I spent several minutes looking carefully at the way Nash had created the authentic, yet modernist,  representation of wheatsheaves and summer foliage in the original. It was also fascinating to stand back from the painting in the gallery and observe the way Nash had cast the low sunlight and lengthening shadows across the painting. Painted in the last summer of the First World War in 1918 in the Chilterns near Chalfont St. Giles, it’s such a beautifully understated painting that both nods back to the Romantic tradition and anticipates the disruptions of the early twentieth century that it features on the cover of the book of the David Dimbleby A Picture of Britain series of a few years ago.

The Looking at the View exhibition displays many classic works but chooses to display these alongside more modern works — often photographic — and so seeks to show that landscape painting is a vibrant part of the contemporary art scene — and not just about haystacks and water mills. For example, there’s a series of 56 photos called Concorde Grid by Wolfgang Tillman. They’re all taken around Heathrow Airport’s perimeter, in Hatton Cross, Cranford and Hounslow West in 1997 and, in addition to Concorde passing over , they feature things like the BA maintenance base (inside which I worked for four years and close by for an additional eight), the road sign on the A30 and what seems like a scrapyard on Hatton Road.

As the Tate exhibition shows (it runs until June), landscape is something that still holds a fascination for both artist and viewer and there’s plenty of scope for Kim to move to the landscape of the photo above and start to paint her own unique synthesis of Germanic melancholy, English pastoral, Berlin reinvention and Shoreditch cool.

And, in doing so, she’s almost retracing the journey of another famous (real) German artist — Kurt Schwitters — co-incidentally also the subject of a major current exhibition at Tate Britain,  Schwitters in Britainwhich I’ve also seen. Schwitters is most known for his collages, the lasting effect of which can be seen even now in most graphic art (e.g. magazines), inspired by his concept of Merz.

Like Kim, Schwitters came from Hanover, where much of his work is now curated in the Sprengel Museum. I used to go to Hanover at least a dozen times a year over a period of eight or nine years so I may have picked up Schwitters’s story without realising it. (I certainly remember the Sprengel Museum itself — it was near the Machsee, location for a wonderful beer and bratwurst festival in the summer.) But Schwitters being an entartete Kunst,  he sensibly fled to Norway and then to Britain.  He was interned for a while in the Isle of Man and the Tate exhibition has his original application, made whilst interned, to remain in the UK. It is typed in faltering English, describing himself being ‘called by the Nazis’ for being ‘a degenerated artist’.

The form is humbling and heartbreaking to read but also hugely uplifting, because the application was eventually successful and Schwitters was released to live freely in London. He subsequently moved to Ambleside in the Lake District, where he made a living by painting portraits and also made many paintings of the dramatic local landscapes. In 1948 Schwitters learned he’d been granted British citizenship — on the day before he died .

Sunset Across The Chilterns 20th February 2013
Sunset Across The Chilterns 20th February 2013

Parallel Lines

A Rana Begum Work in Her Studio
A Rana Begum Work in Her Studio

Last week I ventured into deepest Stoke Newington for another fascinating Love Art London event. I wasn’t sure what to expect in advance of visit to Rana Begum‘s studio.

The Love Art London website promised that ‘tightly controlled compositions, hard-edge lines coated in thick glossy resin, impeccably applied colour and seductively tactile reflective surfaces are all very powerful features of this extraordinary artist’s work. Rana’s paintings are each an exercise in rhythm, symmetry & repetition which satisfy the eye’s appreciation of order and beauty in its simplest form.’

Indeed. And this is an accurate description of the finished works — but we discovered that behind the discipline and order of Rana’s art there were also some fascinating stories, involving some chance and almost haphazard events, which are as fascinating as the geometry of the work.

Rana’s studio is hidden down the end of a mews just off Stoke Newington Church Street. On entering, it seems more like an engineering workshop than anywhere an artist might be at work, as you walk past metal cutting and sanding machines, propane bottles and stockpiles of aluminium. It’s a paradox when you meet Rana, who’s physically quite petite, that these industrial tools and materials are those with which she (and her team) create her artworks.

Although she is known to her team, uncompromisingly, as ‘the boss’, Rana was an informative, generous and charming host. As the Love Art London party trooped around her studio, she took us through the lifecycle of a typical piece of her work, a good example of which is in the photo above, taken in the studio.

For one of these pieces, using parallel metal bars, square sectioned pieces of aluminium are inspected and then cleaned, cut and sanded and prepared for powder-coating at a specialist supplier — usually in black or a neutral colour. Rana then carefully paints the surface of the material of the component parts as part of an overall pattern. These pieces of metal are precision engineered — to thousands of a millimetre — to ensure that they hang exactly in place.

As can be seen in the photograph above, the colour works in its own right, visibly applied to the metal surface. However, given a blank background and enough light, the colour casts a diffuse reflection on to the space in between the bars. If two facing bars are finished in different colours opposing each other, the reflection of  each interferes with its opposite to form a third colour, which often subtly changes in proportion to the quantity of its ‘parent’ colours (often the patterns taper along the inside metal surfaces).

When the piece is viewed as a whole, these interactions form a fascinating overall pattern within the bars. The photograph above is an example of this effect. It’s very clever – almost as if these industrial, inanimate objects have created their own artwork independently. Add the changing quality of natural light and these inanimate sculptures constantly evolve.

Rana has produced these large scale works for public spaces — one is on Regent Street — and other can be found in places such as health centres, probably a good choice as the pieces can be contemplated for a long time.

She also produces similarly geometrically orientated artworks in other materials — folding sheets of metal like origami and some amazing folding wood benches.

But Rana’s own story is also enthralling — and echoes some of the themes in the last blog post. She was born in rural Bangladesh but moved with her family to this country when she was eight, not being able to speak a word of English. She described how she may have expressed herself primarily through art in the period where she tried to catch up with the language — a skill she extremely modestly said she hadn’t yet fully mastered — don’t believe her, she has — I had a lovely, long conversation with her in the pub after the visit (which was so unpretentious that it ended with Rana pointing me in the right direction for the number 73 bus).

While Rana’s patterns are stark and geometrical, her studio had much human warmth, even eccentricity. There’s the evidence of her two young children’s about the place but it’s additionally home to two team members. One is Pierre, her French (I think) assistant who shares much of the donkey work of sanding and cutting metal. The other is Bob — a thoroughly down-to-earth, somewhat grizzled, East End bloke who, amongst other things, drills the keyholes in the metal so the works can be hung precisely.

It turned out Bob played another role in the Rana’s story – she’d actually bought the studio from him. They’d become acquainted while Rana was working in an artists’ co-operative studio in the building next door. Bob was looking to retire from his engineering business when, serendipitously, Rana was also looking for her own premises.

In a mutually beneficial arrangement, Bob sold his workshop to Rana but, realising that her artwork employed the use of some of his skills, he began to help out with the preparation. Some of Bob’s metal-working machines remain in the studio and he still pops in to help out a few days a week.  He told me he has no idea about the artistic side of Rana’s work but perhaps a trace of his non-nonsense stoicism comes through in the minimalist designs, regardless?

As a result, the studio is an idiosyncratic combination of corners full of Bob’s tools, with the accretion of the detritus of years of use, and Rana’s bright, clean minimalist office and exhibition space.  There are also areas of the studio where Rana gets thoroughly messy – I looked in the spraying room where the painting is done and I noticed shelves full of the Montana Gold spraycans I used in my own street art experiment.

Rana is a now a very successful artist, exhibiting at Bischoff/Weiss plus a gallery in Germany and in India, as well as the major art fairs, such as Frieze and the London Art Fair. I can’t help thinking her story, especially that of her studio, is something of a metaphor for how London has changed – and is changing – with artists moving into previously industrial areas of the capital. But in the case of Rana, she’s not displaced what existed before, but adapted it and worked with such an unlikely artist’s assistant as Bob, to create art that’s both new and inventive and also very reflective of its time.

There’s Nothing Quite Like A Flaming Pudding

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

The Bible
The Bible

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?

Christmas Pudding Mixture -- Three Weeks Ahead
Christmas Pudding Mixture — Three Weeks Ahead

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).

The Turkey Farm and the Flood
The Turkey Farm and the Flood

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.

Breadcrumbs Blasted, Onions Chopped and Sweated
Breadcrumbs Blasted, Onions Chopped and Sweated

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 Alien in the Milk Pan, the Undressed Turkey and a Stock Photo
The Alien in the Milk Pan, the Undressed Turkey and a Stock Photo

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.

Christmas Eve Sustenance and the Bread Sauce
Christmas Eve Sustenance and the Bread Sauce

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.

Puts the Top Hat On It
Puts the Top Hat On It

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).

The Supporting Cast (btw the sprouts are supposed to be 'red')
The Supporting Cast (btw the sprouts are supposed to be ‘red’)

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.

Bootiful
Bootiful

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.

Lethal Port Jelly and Boozy Cake
Lethal Port Jelly and Boozy Cake

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).

An Alien Craft or a Pocket Magnox Reactor?
An Alien Craft or a Pocket Magnox Reactor?

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.

The Flaming Pudding
The Flaming Pudding

Shoreditch Blonde

 

Shoreditch Blonde -- Redchurch Brewery
The Beer of My Novel? (Image linked from Redchurch Brewery website)

There’s a report on the BBC website today about the increasing fashionability and popularity of craft brewing in London. Its main focus is the Beavertown Brewery in Hackney where the brewer is Robert Plant’s son.

A few years ago it was only bearded, beer-bellied types who were proudly out in their appreciation of real ale and the vast number of diverse styles that offered an alternative from the industrialised, mass-marketed poor-man’s pilsner styles that dominated bar counters in this country. (Stella Artois always gets stick for leading the bland lager pack but I actually think Stella is relatively well-made and has less of the chemically taste of the cheaper brands.)

But now craft beer is, to use a Sunday supplement phrase, ‘achingly trendy’. Craft beer isn’t always real ale – punk anarcho-brewers like Brewdog take pride in setting 41-year old CAMRA’s (the Campaign for Real Ale) nose out of joint. But, generally, the presence of living yeast in the brew gives a marvellous complexity to a well-brewed beer and the majority of new British brewers (with a few exceptions like Greenwich’s Meantime) tend to use traditional methods.

In the last year or so, I’ve been to a lot of the new craft beer outlets in London – the two Cask Bar outlets in Pimlico and Hatton Garden, the architectural oddity of the Euston Tap, the Brewdog pub in Camden, Tap East in Stratford Westfield and so on – and I’ll perhaps plan a visit soon to Hackney to visit Beavertown.

But I’ll be even keener to try and find the beer whose photo from the brewery’s product page I’ve linked to above – Shoreditch Blonde by the Redchurch Brewery. They’re based in Bethnal Green but the name is an obvious reference to the famed Redchurch Street – maybe, apart from the Leake Street tunnel near Waterloo, the most active graffiti art area in London.

Beer plays quite a part in the novel and the character who has a passion for it is cool, urban Kim – James just drinks lots of it (at the start of the novel, anyway, before he goes on his personal narrative beer journey).

So, in another of those extraordinarily touches of serendipity that give me a little hope that the novel is tapping into the Zeitgest, the beer is based on a German style and brewed with German malt. I’ve been looking for a significantly named beer for Kim to serve James in a scene early in the novel – and now I’ve found the perfect one. Now to find a pint of it.

 

Beaten To It?

…but hopefully not with a paddle. I spotted this in W.H.Smith at Northampton services on the M1 last weekend.

Angel -- Beaten To It?
Maybe Not the Shelf for Mine?

I’d realised my novel’s title is a bit of a hostage to fortune. I like it because it works in conjunction with the content of the novel in several different ways — and I like the definite article usage that’s so associated with pub names. But it obviously has many associations that aren’t lost on the publishers of erotica and similar. Therefore I wasn’t too surprised to see one of the heavily promoted titles in the erotica section in the motorway services used the same title — it’s one of the Mills and Boon Spice series. Interestingly, this is the only The Angel I could find on Amazon, although there are loads of Angel and Angels out there — Marian Keyes used the title and Katie Price has ‘written’ one too. As I’m so familiar with this title, I don’t know what I’d think if an agent or publisher wanted me to change it.

Book titles are a bit like song titles — there aren’t enough original ones to go round. At least mine wouldn’t sit on the same section of the bookshelves — barring a commercially focused rewrite and a foxy sounding pen name. Although the novel doesn’t shy away from the characters’ sexual lives, I think anyone looking for a bit of mass-market sado-masochism will be disappointed. Currently there’s no sex until almost half way through — but, of course, that may yet change.

Speaking of sex scenes in novels, I’ve been ‘enjoying’ excerpts from the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards (see previous post).  Now the shortlist is out, short 140-character bursts have been tweeted using the hashtag #LRBadSex2012.

I’ve had a few Twitter conversations with whoever tweets as @Lit_Review about some of this year’s incredible bunch of finalists — and they’re from largely well-known writers (one of the authors, Nicola Barker, wrote a set text for last year’s MMU second year MA course).

It’s not the flowery, purply-prose passages that I find particularly funny — sometimes you can see what the writer is trying to aim for — but the ones which are the opposite of lyrical. For example: ‘He ejaculates voluminously and with very great force indeed. In fact, he keeps on ejaculating, there’s loads of the stuff’, ‘he began to massage her with a kind of dry pumping action, which reminded her of someone blowing up a lilo’ or, my favourite, ‘his penis was jerking around wildly in her hand now and she began yelping to encourage his flow of thought’. The Literary Review doesn’t officially identify the authors of the tweets but let’s say my flow of thought is never going to be quite the same again when I’m watching a report on the nation’s stagnant GDP on Newsnight.

As an aside, and nothing to do with bad sex or erotica, I went to the Made In Germany exhibition in Shoreditch on Thursday — a show by six young or emerging German artists. I’d unreservedly recommend anyone else to visit — except that it finished last Friday (another show with different artists is probably planned). I particularly liked the young people nightlife pieces by Nadine Wölk (the only solo female artist) and the odd landscapes by duo Mike MacKeldey & Ellen DeElaine (possibly the same sort of landscapes Kim might paint).

Made in Germany Logo
Made in Germany Exhibition Logo (from German Embassy website)

I chatted with the representative from the German gallery who’d organised the show — and told him about my novel. Although I think he’d rather I wanted to buy one of the pictures, he told me a fair amount about how German artists trained and where they tended to live and work (mostly Berlin, as I’d imagined). Kim’s backstory in the novel is fortunately quite plausible — she trained at the Universität der Künste. And it would be quite feasible that she’d come to London, although as the chap from the gallery said he though that Shoreditch High Street was starting to look like Kensington, that she’d find it hard going financially.

On another tangential note, I listened to Dustin Hoffman on Desert Island Discs this morning and the section where he talked about being a young, unknown actor, trying to get parts at auditions was fascinating. His life at that time was all about coping with almost continual rejection.

He still seems to feel the pain in some ways and made a very telling point about how people in the acting industry judge talent. It’s his view that the worst actors often got hired, mentioning that his friend Gene Hackman, also then unknown, was such a good, naturalistic actor that it didn’t look like he was acting when he auditioned — which is what directors at that time wanted to see.

It’s Hoffman’s theory that casting directors are terrified of making a mistake and this leads them into usually preferring someone who’s derivative — who reminds them of a known quantity. Because of this, the original talents are often overlooked.

His story sounds reminiscent of the struggle for recognition of many writers — and how it’s easier to market work that fits a known niche. The photo above of all the Fifty Shades derivatives on the shelves at Northampton services makes the point. Twelve Shades of Submission even re-uses the s word in addition to the ‘number of [insert your kink here]’ formula.

But Dustin Hoffman is a salutary example of persistence. He kept on auditioning, got his break and he’s now received the ultimate honour even in this country — Desert Island Discs.

Know What You Write

I’ve recently been writing a new scene for the novel involving street art. As readers of the blog will know, I’ve spent plenty of time recently learning about street art and observing it around Shoreditch (on Thursday this week I was looking at some recent street art in the car park opposite Village Underground, under the new Overground viaduct, with Jamie and Sabina from I Know What I Like).

What I didn’t know that much about was how the artists actually created their work — I’d seen artists at work, like Amanda Marie (see previous posting) but I wasn’t aware of basic information like where they got their materials, how much they cost and the fundamental experience of what it was like to press your finger on the nozzle of a spraycan and to try and do something creative, especially in an outdoor environment and possibly looking over your shoulder to avoid being arrested.

So I decided to try for myself. Last weekend I became ‘macnovel’ the street artist.

The New Tag on the Block
The New Tag on the Block

First of all, I had to buy the paint — and I wanted the proper stuff that serious artists use, not Halford’s car bodywork cans. An online search produced plenty of websites that would supply aerosol paint cans for delivery but I couldn’t find many bricks and mortar outlets, even in central London.  The best place I could find was Chrome and Black on Bethnal Green Road in Shoreditch, located, perhaps not coincidentally, just round the corner from Redchurch Street.

Montana Gold
My Montana Gold Cans Ready for Action

Chrome and Black is a supplier (I’d hesitate to call it a shop) dedicated to graffiti and street art. It reminded me vaguely of one of those old Swedish government owned liquor stores or the hardware shop in the famous Two Ronnies’ Four Candles sketch, as all the merchandise was locked away behind metal screens or glass cases — and the spraycans and markers came in a bewildering variety of colours. It’s not the sort of place where customers go to casually browse.

Dressed for work and carrying my Evening Standard, there was no way I was going to pretend I was some kind of cool graffiti artist (although from what I overheard I think there may have been a genuine street artist ‘name’ in the place at the time). So I asked the bloke behind the counter for something I could play around and experiment with. He recommended me the Montana Gold range and I took a red and black can of each (they were about £3.99 each, by the way).

Having a couple of cans of graffiti paint stuffed in my work rucksack made the journey back on Chiltern Railways feel faintly subversive. I’d guess a fair number of my fellow passengers would like to bring back hanging for anyone caught in possession of spraycans.

The First Attempt -- Signed Too
The First Attempt — Signed Too

I had the cans but where the hell was I going to use them? Even if I was inclined to do my experimentation in public places there are hardly the post-industrial walls of Brick Lane near where I live. The most readily available blank canvasses would probably be sheep in the fields.

But I remembered the materials used by Adam Neate when he was unknown — he’s now one of the world’s most famous street artists. (The story goes, which is a little romanticised, that he literally left his works in the street for anyone to keep who found them.)

Neate painted his early work — and still sometimes does — on cardboard. He’s now an exceptionally collectible artist which is ironic as the base material for his work is potentially the potentially the contents of a typical recycling bin (he got his cardboard from charity shops I believe). His spray painting has an effect almost like alchemy on this otherwise base material, transforming it into something that art collectors will pay tens of thousands of pounds for.

Having a backlog of cardboard waiting to go to the tip, I decided to use it as my artist’s medium – as it happens, mainly packaging from a John Lewis fold-up bed. But I didn’t want to be ‘just’ an aerosol artist. I wanted to have a go at stencilling too. So I found what I thought was suitable — a thin piece of Amazon card packaging — and cut out a few shapes  with a Stanley knife.

Cans, Stencil and Finished 'Artwork'
Cans, Stencil and Finished ‘Artwork’

I went out into the garden with a willing helper, my spraycans, stencils and cardboard and had a go. And some of my efforts can be seen in the photos here.

Any thoughts on the artwork? I’m actually quite attached to it. I thought I’d throw it away instantly but I’ve hung on to it as I quite like it. Anyone who reads my manuscript will be able to spot exactly which part of the novel I was writing at the time by the stencilling I’ve attempted to do in the picture below.

Can You Guess What It Is Yet?
Can You Guess What It Is Yet?

Clearly they’re just practice efforts but I really enjoyed it –and it was valuable for the writing. There are aspects of the experience that can’t be imagined that easily — or gleaned from a Google search — like the way it’s easy to over-apply the paint so that it starts to dribble and the way the paint coats your fingers. And then there’s the smell — it reeks of solvent. My novel’s graffiti painting scene takes place in an enclosed space and there’s no way that, having had a go at this myself, I could write the piece in the novel without mentioning the smell.

Becoming a temporary street artist might be the most extreme example of how I may have become a ‘method writer’. I don’t know whether there is such a thing but, if there is, I’d imagine it to be a little like the method school of acting which, to simplify greatly, means the actor prepares for the performance by trying to experience the world of the character.

According to the Lee Strasberg Institute website (he’s credited with inventing the technique) it uses ‘the creative play of the affective memory in the actor’s imagination’ to  ‘[create] performances grounded in the human truth of the moment’ — which I take to mean the actor tries to do the same stuff as the character — so these may be drawn upon in performance. So if the character is a dustman, perhaps the actor goes out on a dustcart a few mornings. I’m not sure how it works if a character is something like a serial killer, though.

A Studio Too Messy Even to be in My Novel
A Studio Too Messy Even to be in My Novel

Even so, method acting reinforces Aristotle’s belief that ‘the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself’ — and this must also be true with writing. If the writer doesn’t care about a character, why should the reader? If the writer wants a scene to evoke emotions that create physical reactions in the reader, maybe of danger, peril, grief, anticipation or anger in the reader, then these ought to be more vivid or genuine if the writer also experienced these feelings at the time of putting the words on the page.

The same must also be true for the physical reactions triggered by effective sex scenes. If you’re writing about two characters who are so attracted to each other then it must be a mark of effective writing to engender a sympathetic reaction in the reader — which is probably why they’re so difficult to write that many writers avoid them altogether.  And if they’re difficult to write then it’s a step further to workshop the stuff with your writing course friends, although that’s a pretty good deterrent against going too far along the path of purple prose.

I suspect most of the candidates for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards, due to be announced fairly soon, ended up on the list by obfuscating the fundamental, but discomforting, truths of writing about sex behind over-elaborate prose or strained metaphors.

My MMU Creative Writing tutor last year had the good grace to admit to our class that he won this dubious prize for a passage in novel of his in the 1990s, which used a sewing machine analogy. I have actually read the passage in question and I don’t think it’s particularly cringeworthy, more taken out of context. He must have been unlucky — or lucky, if you think that sort of publicity is the good sort.

Sadly, my method writing hasn’t involved sex and sewing machines but the experience of writing the novel has influenced my life in plenty of other ways. Ironically I’m finding the normal advice of ‘write what you know’ could be better phrased in my case, as ‘know what you write’.

The novel’s themes include business, food and pubs (of which I have a fair amount of practical experience, particularly of the latter) and also art, which is something I’ve learned a lot about while writing the novel. As well as a number of viewings I’ve been to with I Know What I Like, I’ve also taken advantage of working in London to visit many of the high profile art exhibitions and events this summer.

Most recently, I’ve been to see the Turner Prize show and the Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain, Richard Hamilton and the Titian exhibition at the National, British Design at the V&A, the Bauhaus Exhibition (and another I can’t remember) at the Barbican, Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern, the Invisible Art show at the Hayward Gallery, the Lazaridis Bedlam exhibition at the Old Vic Tunnels (used as MI6’s bunker in Skyfall), the Moniker Art Fair at Village Underground and various others.

I doubt I’d have gone to a single event had I not started writing the novel — although going to so many events reduces the time I have available to complete the novel. I sometimes beat myself up about this but, on the other hand, I started writing the novel when working in the cultural wasteland that was an office park on the wrong side of Luton Airport, where the most exciting way of spending a lunchtime was to browse the aisles of the local Asda (although it’s an ambition of mine to write a novel that’s successful and mainstream enough to be put on the shelves there).

But binging on art and cultural events begs the fascinating question of which came first — did I start to write a novel about an artist because I wanted to discover more about art — or is it purely secondary?

That's Adam Neate's Hand Ready to Sign Posters
That’s Adam Neate’s Hand Ready to Sign Posters

And then there’s the access I’ve had to artists via the brilliant Love Art London — about whom I’ve blogged before. How did I know that Adam Neate painted on cardboard? Because I heard him tell me himself at the Love Art London viewing of his show at Elms Lester’s Painting Rooms in St. Giles. I asked the gallery owner how much Adam Neate’s work was priced (as there were no figures on display next to the works on display). I was told they were in the region of £25-30k per piece (and one of his works was recently sold for £80k at auction). The bloke seriously thought I might buy one. Well, maybe, but probably only if this novel gets to the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list one day.

When the artist is able to sell work to serious collectors for so much money, it’s great credit to both Adam Neate and Love Art London that he attended our viewing to talk about the work — and even more impressive that he came to the pub with us afterwards — the appropriately named Angel.

Adam Neate was an incredibly nice, modest bloke — and I know because I ended up chatting to him for about fifteen minutes — even bought him a pint of Sam Smith’s. We talked about Berlin, as he was going there the next day for a weekend break. I told him a bit about the novel — as Berlin is where Kim was trained in the novel — and I’d guess that Berlin and London are the two main centres of urban art, certainly in Europe.

Not a bad journey in terms of method writing — starting by conceiving a character who’s a street artist, then trying to have a practical go at what she does and then talking about the fictional character with someone who’s achieved in reality what my character is striving for in the novel.

The Huge Studio for Scenery Painting at Elms Lester Painting Rooms
The Huge Studio for Scenery Painting at Elms Lester Painting Rooms

I could have spent the time revising the novel rather than going out and validating my portrayal of the artist. Instead I might have a finished novel by now but would it be genuine and informed enough to move readers, particularly those who are interested in art?

It’s worth making a note about the fascinating space at Elms Lesters. The gallery was originally built for huge scale painting for West End theatres. It still has an incredible space about forty feet high and much less wide that was constructed for painting theatrical backdrops — and is now used for filming things like music videos as much as for anything else. It’s quite an extraordinary building.

A Flying View of London

This weekend I visited the latest fascinating addition to London’s skyline, a construction that would probably have attracted a lot more attention had it not opened immediately before the Olympics — an event it was partly conceived to serve.

Its official name is the rather ghastly corporate speak of ‘The Emirates Air Line’ after its sponsors — who also have their name symbiotically linked to Arsenal’s stadium. However, if taking the Emirates money was the difference between constructing this spectacular cable car ride and not then I’m glad Boris and TFL took the shilling. It’s magnificent and I’d recommend anyone to take a ride — take a look at this view of the Shard that I took from ninety metres above the Thames.

The Shard Rising
The Shard Rises Between the Canary Wharf Towers

Stunning: shame I didn’t get the top of 1 Canada Water but the Shard only appears between the Canary Wharf buildings for a few seconds, such is the speed of the ride.

It’s apparently the most expensive cable car system built anywhere in the world — a legacy of the ‘cost is no object’ building frenzy in East London in the run up to the Olympics. It opened ahead of schedule a month before the games and theoretically links the ‘North Greenwich Arena’ (O2/Millennium Dome) with Excel in the Royal Docks area.

Dome and Canary Wharf
Canary Wharf Seen from Above the Millennium Dome (O2 Arena for the modernists)

Its two boarding stations are pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which makes the cable car’s presence all the more surreal. It’s the type of structure that would probably never have been built at any other time and so, to my mind, all the more valuable for that — like many other highlights of last summer, it’s frankly a bit bonkers.

Olympic Stadium from Above the River
Olympic Stadium from Above the River

The photo above shows post-Olympic contrasts in this part of London. The stadium (now looking darker after the removal of the white decoration that clothed its circumference) and Orbit tower sit in the distance surrounded by a post-industrial landscape of squat warehouses, electricity pylons and tube lines.

The Emirates Skyline Cable Cars
The Emirates Skyline Cable Cars

Maybe in years to come large numbers of commuters will actually commute across from one regenerated side of the Thames to the next? (As hinted above, it’s an integrated part of Transport for London — you can get a discount with an Oyster or Travelcard but not fly for free.) In the meantime it brings some fun to this rather bleak and windswept part of London.

As well as Canary Wharf, the dome and the Olympic Park, the cable car gives great views of the rest of London — including the unusual perspective of the City from the East. The push to move the centre of gravity of London to the east, of which the Olympic legacy was meant to be part, is reflected in my novel. Much of the London of The Angel is surveyed in the two photos below:

The City from the East
The City Seen from Downriver
East London
East London

Apart from a brief excursion in the middle of the novel, the furthest the characters go west is the line of the hidden river Fleet (running approximately down Farringdon Road to Blackfriars Station). The characters work and play in the bohemian, unmanicured areas of Shoreditch, Old Street, Spitalfields and Brick Lane that abut the City and live further out in the likes of Dalston and Hackney Wick.

Tap East
Tap East, Stratford Westfield

I started off my trip with a visit to a new pub brewery in the unlikely setting of the retail temple of Stratford Westfield (bibulous research for the novel) and then moved on from the southern terminus of the cable car into Greenwich.

 

Walking from the area of the O2 into Greenwich, I was struck by how much of this area is still post-industrial and a little down at heel — quite a contrast from the centre of Greenwich around the Cutty Sark where the pubs and bars were heaving at 6pm.

Canary Whard Lights at Night
Canary Wharf, Illuminated

As night fell the towers of Canary Wharf illuminated like beacons in the dark — I walked through the Olympic equestrian venue of Greenwich Park and took a night-time version of the stunning vista that was featured in the horse-jumping events. But with their bankers’ logos on display, the towers across the river seemed to represent the distance and remoteness of the financial institutions from the London that surrounds them — the tension and conflict that I’m trying to tap into as the wellspring of The Angel.

Night Time View from Greenwich Park
Night Time View from Greenwich Park

The Accidental Street Art Photographer

This weekend is one of the biggest in the London art world with the huge Frieze exhibitions in Regent’s Park and many associated events. In 2010 Village Underground started to host the Moniker art fair, which is a showcase for leading urban, street and contemporary artists timed to coincide with the Frieze festivities.

The Moniker fair attracts a number of well-known artists from all over the world and one of the highlights of this year’s schedule is a new work by Ben Eine (see post about his other work in Shoreditch), who has a long association with Village Underground (he painted the ‘Let’s Adore and Endure Each Other’ message high up on the Great Eastern Street wall.

In The Angel Kim has her studio in one of the tube carriages on the roof of Village Underground in Shoreditch. I’ve been there quite a few times (up in the carriages and in the venue space below). I paid a flying visit to the fair (which unlike Frieze at £20+ is free to enter) yesterday evening and on my way up towards Old Street (where I also paid a flying visit to the National Academy of Writing fair) I noticed the lower part of the wall on Great Eastern Street was being painted.

The Gravity Garden -- Amanda Marie at Work
The Gravity Garden — Amanda Marie at Work

Unusually, it was a female artist at work and her style was distinctly different to much of the street art that normally covers the walls around Shoreditch — lots of yellow and pink —  not monochromatic blacks and greys or electrifying primary colours. She also used some intricate stencilling work to apply small coloured stars, crosses and lines to the mural.  And featuring figures of children in the work is fairly radical for street art.

I’d not seen a street artist at work and I was intrigued by the stencilling before so I asked if I could take a few pictures and we had a short chat. She told me that she was Amanda Marie from Colorado (website here), who’d come over from the US for the fair, and she had work on show inside the exhibition. The Moniker website describes it as ‘storybook imagery [that] can feel edgy cute, but it is washed with mischief, and can be a bit spooky.   Her work is Child-Like, but not Childish.  The paintings are allegorical and proverbial.’ The project on the Village Underground walls is called ‘Gravity Garden’ (sponsored by a gallery in Amsterdam) and it’s of ‘children gently falling through wonderfully endless skies painted directly on the walls.  It will be a spooky oasis.’

My Street Art Photos on Village Underground's Facebook Cover
My Street Art Photos on Village Underground’s Facebook Cover

When I got home I thought the photos looked quite interesting so I posted one on Village Underground’s Facebook page and said I had a few more if they were interested. They were and I e-mailed the photos over and they appear to have liked them so much that they’ve not only put all of them on their Facebook and Flickr pages (and giving me the credit) but one is currently Village Underground’s cover page (see photos) — as liked by over 10,000 people. The photos themselves have got nearly 100 ‘likes’ in a few hours. I’m feeling quite impressed that I’ve promoted the London street art scene, even if only in a small, accidental way.

Liked by Me and 96 Other People!
Liked by Me and 96 Other People!

As a quick aside, the most interesting thing that came out of the panel discussion I went on to see at the National Academy of Writing creative fair was the comment by Andrew Cowan (who runs the famous UEA MA programme) that most of their alumni who achieved distinctions did not go on to become published writers. It was those whose writing was less lauded by the academics who tended to make up their impressive list of students who went on to later success when the course ended. I was quite encouraged by that.

Update on the photo on Sunday 14th Oct: the artist herself has shared my photo on her Facebook page with my credit (see below).

My Photo on the Artist's Page (with credit)
My Photo on the Artist’s Page (with credit)

(If I get so excited about having a photo of mine shared around the web, I can’t imagine what I’d be like if the novel was to be published.)