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.
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.
Looking back, despite my best intentions, I’m still not exactly sure why I’ve not managed to keep up the previously modest level of posting activity. It’s probably prioritisation by default as I’m still writing and doing just as much interesting stuff in between. There’s also been various developments with the novel that I’m not really able to publicly blog about on here.
But one thing I’ve kept doing, mainly because it’s nowhere near as time-consuming as blogging, is taking lots of photos.
So in the spirit of a picture telling a thousand words here’s a photographic run through 2016 with a bit of commentary along the way
Perhaps one reason for being distracted from blogging is that I’ve spent the past year working in Soho. For example this place is just around the corner…
…and even though it’s no longer the groovy Swinging Sixties, there are enough spontaneous ‘happenings’ around where I work for me to have grabbed the odd evocative photo, like this one…
I walk past this iconic place almost daily (it was interesting to see it featured in The Apprentice this year)…
…and along here often too (and at the moment it’s worth walking to the end of Carnaby Street to the pop up shop set up by the V&A Museum in association with their You Say You Want A Revolution Exhibition).
And there’s plenty of things to be distracted by nearby — like the amazing Christmas angels in Regent Street…
…or just weird London scenes like this.
Sometimes it’s been restorative to occasionally get away from it all and lie (albeit briefly) under a tree on a patch of grass in one of those rare summer lunchtimes.
I don’t say much here about the ‘day job’. Until late 2015 that was partly because I might have been taken out and shot if I said too much! OK. That was meant to be a gross exaggeration about working in a government ministry but the way Theresa May’s government is treating its civil servants then perhaps it’s not. Nevertheless, I have a hazy recollection that I may have signed the Official Secrets Act, not that I had access to much secret stuff but I did work almost literally at the heart of government. I walked daily through the doors of a large ministry — one that was often on the front page of the newspapers — and shared lifts with cabinet ministers.
While I wasn’t exactly Sir Humphrey, I was given invaluable direct experience of the the way government works.
And in terms of writing benefit, I gained insider knowledge of the criminal justice system, through working with the police, HM Courts and Tribunals system ( even doing some work for those seditionary “enemies of the people” in the UK Supreme Court).
It’s all fantastic material should any of my future novels head in the direction of crime or politics.
The organisation where I now spend most of my nine-to-five working hours couldn’t be more different. I won’t go into specific detail but it’s a media-tech company (hence the Soho base) and uses a lot of clever technology to encourage people to pay money to look as absurd as the people below…
(Apparently the gun isn’t on sale yet.) Actually, the VR (Virtual Reality) experience is so immersive that these people won’t care how they look from the outside. I’ve tried VR and it’s convincing. I predict that the technology could be on the cusp of going mainstream. And don’t take my word for it — creating a VR game was another activity to be featured on this season’s Apprentice.
2016 produced some unexpected recognition for my writing — non-fiction this time.
I was elected (or admitted or whatever they do) to full membership of the British Guild of Beer Writers. It might seem surprising to some that this organisation even exists but it has a few hundred members, including household names and virtually every author of a book on beer or pubs or contributor on the subject to any broadsheet newspaper or TV or radio broadcast.
I was elected to full membership on the basis of published examples of my writing (which I don’t tend to talk about much on this blog) so it’s a huge honour to be in the company of so many illustrious and expert writers in that field.
Being a member of the guild let me rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of the beer writing world at their awards ceremony, including the odd, hairy beer-loving celebrity.
But even though my blog posts may have slipped off the radar, I’m still writing a lot of fiction, even on holiday in France (see below).
I could get used to that lifestyle.
With various things happening with The Angel (which, as it’s a book, have been invariably slow moving) , I’ve been hard at work on another novel. A heavily adapted version of the new novel’s opening even won a prize in the Winchester Writers’ Festival Writing Can Be Murder crime writing awards this year.
I’ve kept in touch with many writing friends, enjoying their successes, for example, with winning stories at Liars’ League and other writing -related developments that can’t be blogged about. I’ve also kept up my involvement with the RNA (see previous post) and received another great critique from their New Writers’ Scheme.
By providing a series of non-negotiable deadlines every few weeks, my membership of a writing group in London has proved invaluable. I’ve propped myself up and carried on writing well into the early hours on several occasions by working on a piece from the new novel. In the summer I carried on once or twice for the whole night — going to bed (briefly) once that sun had risen.
The standard of my fellow writing group members is generally excellent (one reason why I burn the midnight oil to try to make my submissions at least presentable) and we’re very fortunate that the group is run by someone who’s a professional writing tutor at City University and novelist.
The group’s feedback is excellent — both illuminating and honest — although not usually as brutally frank as the comment below.
I’ll save details of the current work-in-progress for another post. However, the next few photos might give a clue about some some of the things I’ve been doing that could act as background research for the world of the novel.
Here’s a shot of a pile of books waiting to be read…
…and below is another example of my methodical approach to shelving books (Owl Song At Dawn is an excellent novel published this year by my old City University creative writing tutor, Emma Claire Sweeney, who organises Something Rhymed — see earlier post).
I’ve not been to any music concerts quite as jaw-dropping at Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn (whose recording of the shows was released a few weeks ago and allowed me to relive sitting right in front of the spectacle — and the sonic battering of Omar Hakim’s drums — listen to the extended version of King of the Mountain on the CD and you’ll know what I mean).
But during the year I’ve been to see a couple of other giants of music from the past thirty or so years. Most recently I saw Nile Rodgers, also at the Hammersmith Apollo, who performed an incredibly energetic set of hits by Chic, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and others (several of which I heard a few days later being played from loudspeakers in Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland) and he also played an obscure favourite of mine, Spacer, originally by French singer, Sheila B.
Seeing Bruce Springsteen live has been one of those bucket list items I’ve always wanted to experience so I took my opportunity when he played Wembley Stadium in June along with 80,000 or so others. Elsewhere in the stadium were Bruce fans and writing acquaintances (and tweeters) Louise Walters (whose second novel is published imminently) and Pete Domican.
Springsteen’s stamina and his rapport with a stadium audience are awesome. He played from around 6.30pm to just before 10pm, non-stop. The sound where I was sitting in the south stand was fairly ropy but I was more dumbfounded by the behaviour of the people in the (not very cheap) seats around me. As can be seen from one of the earlier photos, I like a pint of beer, but many of the mostly middle-aged, middle-class audience seemed to treat the Springsteen show like a visit to a very expensive pub — possibly reliving their rose-tinted memories of some student bar. They constantly shuttled to and from the very expensive Wembley bar and then, inevitably, to the toilets. While loudly declaring their devotion to ‘The Boss’, some dedicated fans danced with their backs to the stage and got so drunk they either had to leave before the end. Some wouldn’t have remembered it anyway.
I was a little dubious in advance about another music-related experience in the summer — visiting the Latitude Festival in Suffolk in July. I wanted to go mainly to see Grimes: who’s nothing to do with the music genre grime, but a hugely innovative and original musician from Canada whose music defies any easy description — being both catchy and experimental — and mainly, but not exclusively, electronic.
It was described as one critic as being simultaneously like everything you’ve ever heard reassembled and remixed in a way which sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. That strikes me as something interesting to aspire towards in writing.
What massively impresses me about Grimes is that, with the exception of a couple of guest vocalists, she writes, sings, plays all the instruments, produces and engineers her recordings. I never get bored listening to her most recent album, the brilliant Art Angels . ‘Don’t be boring’ is another great rule of thumb.
Her live performance was equally original and self-reliant, accompanied by only a couple of dancers and her recent collaborator, Hana, on guitar (on left in photo below).
While waiting for Grimes, I had an unexpected opportunity to see Slaves, a two man guitar and drum modern-punk group. While the group themselves would be unlikely to dispute that their music is the opposite of subtle, their performance was amazingly good humoured (with songs about commuting like Cheer Up London or fat-cat bankers ‘Rich man, I’m not your bitch man‘) and created such an engagement with the audience that the FT reviewer described it as ‘life affirming’.
Before Slaves I was blown away by an electrifying performance by Christine and the Queens. Along with Art Angels, I must have listened to Chaleur Humaine (Christine and the Queen’s debut album) more than any others this year. I went to one of their two shows at Brixton Academy in November for a repeat of the live experience.
I’ve always had a fondness for French electronic music (Air are another of my favourites). When Héloïse Letissier (Christine is her alter-ego) announced ‘Welcome to the French disco!’ at the start of Science Fiction, one of my favourite tracks, it seemed an appropriate riposte to the narrow-minded bigotry and xenophobia that has scarred other aspects of 2016 which far too many despicable politicians and newspaper editors spent much the year cultivating.
Christine and the Queens are inclined to do unexpected cover versions live and I had the spine-tingling moment of serendipity when they covered Good Life by Inner City, at the time of its release in the late 1980’s a much-underrated track, but one of those tracks everyone seems to know — maybe because of the almost improvised vocal line that wanders where it’s least expected? But I guess Christine and the Queens may have picked it as an antidote to all 2016’s other shit?
At the other end of the socio-political spectrum to Slaves’ music, I’d been wary of Latitude’s reputation as the Waitrose of music festivals — with rehabilitated hippies regressing to the behaviours they liked to say they indulged in their youths. And, indeed, during the day there was indeed a scattering of baby-boomer types trying to press-gang their extended families into enjoying the festival in a conspicuously worthy way.
Boomer grandchildren were transported around in flower-garlanded trolleys like this one…
…and as it got later the place became more like a pop-up Center Parcs, except the vegetal aromas in the forest weren’t coming from wood burning fires. Eventually as the night wore on and the older people retired to their luxury tents the sound-systems and DJ sets attracted large, bouncing swathes of younger people, like moths to the flashing lights.
Wandering through the woods I came across a series of artists’ nstallations — and immediately recognised the brightly-coloured faces of David Shillinglaw’s work (whose studio I visited a couple of years ago with Love Art London). He’s an exceptionally friendly person and showed me around his unmistakable collection of positively painted sheds, which transformed into a music sound-system after dark.
I’d visited Latitude for the music but was most impressed by the festival’s showcasing of all types of art. When I first arrived I stopped off at the the literary arena to listen to an author interview with the Bailey’s Prize winner, Lisa McInery. It was a nice touch to have a bookshop on site.
Coming a few weeks after the EU referendum result, Latitude was a refreshing distraction that emphasised the pleasures found away from the poisonous and vindictive political atmosphere. Ironically, the industries represented by Latitude — art, music , comedy, dance, theatre and literature — are those in which the UK is an undisputed world leader (reflected in much of the content of this blog over the past few years) but seem undervalued by the closed-minded, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, expert-dismissing philistinism of the pro-leave bigots.
The opposite of a huge festival like Latitude is the proverbial gig in the back of a pub. I spent a fascinating evening in July on the Camden Rock’n’Roll Walking Tour, led by Alison Wise. Covering the amazing musical heritage of a relatively small part of London between Camden Town tube station and the Roundhouse near Chalk Farm.
I was especially pleased that we stopped off in several pubs on the way. Each pub had a strong association with one of Camden’s music scenes through the last few decades. The Hawley Arms was Amy Winehouse’s local (with the likes of the Libertines as regulars), The Good Mixer was where the leading Britpop bands hung out, the areas around Dingwalls and Camden Lock have many punk associations and the Dublin Castle in Parkway launched the careers of Madness and many other early eighties bands.
And here’s me with Molly from Minnesota (the only time I’ve ever met her) inside the Dublin Castle in a photo taken by Alison at the end of the tour.
It’s surprising how many of Alison’s tours round Camden and elsewhere are filled by tourists from overseas rather than native Brits or Londoners. Even though I’d worked in Camden for five years a while ago I still learned a lot from the tour — all relevant for writing purposes too. Alison also does Bowie Soho tours and album cover pub crawls which I’m sure are excellent.
I’ve read a lot of books over the year, although nowhere near as many as I’d intended. I’ve worked my way through a lot of musical biographies and autobiographies, including Chrissie Hynde’s frank Reckless, the bizarre Paul Morley prose of Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs and the beautifully written (and non-ghosted) Boys In The Trees by the wonderful Carly Simon.
A few Sunday Times bestselling blockbusters have also made it on to my reading list, mostly out of curiosity to understand the reasons for their success. After having read them, in most cases, I’m not much the wiser.
So I’ve been busy, enjoying lots of new experiences and taking many more photos than those above. It’s even more worthwhile then those experiences to settle into the subconscious, interact and collide and spark off little bits of unexpected inspiration I can later use in my writing. And to help the process, there’s nothing like taking a bit of time out and reflect.
So the last photo in the post was taken on a long walk between Christmas and New Year s the sun was setting over the Chilterns — a hopefully prescient, peaceful image to usher in 2017.
I didn’t intend to write this post but I was making a comment on Isabel Costello’s blog On The Literary Sofa and it became so long that I thought it would be an imposition to post on her blog in its entirety – hence it’s mutated into a rather long post of its own on this site instead.
Isabel’s blog posts are thought-provoking and well-researched and long enough to develop an interesting argument, which I like (though not quite as long as some of my posts). The title of On the Literary Sofa’s centenary post published this week is Sex Scenes in Fictionand it’s well worth a few minutes of any literary-minded person’s time — as is the rest of the blog, which has barely mentioned the subject of sex before now. (And I should add that I know Isabel — mainly via Twitter although we’ve met a couple of times. I haven’t hit on her blog at random.) Reading Isabel’s original post may also put my arguments below into context: many of the points are direct responses to quotations or points made On The Literary Sofa. I also revisit some views I’ve previously blogged about myself.
It’s a very balanced piece, asking whether it’s desirable (or even feasible) to effectively write good fiction about sex. It covers positions (and I will resist the temptation to highlight double entendres throughout this post or it will be even longer than it currently stands) from the ‘when the bedroom door closes everything should be left to the imagination’ advocates to those who prefer naturalistic no-holds-barred action with explicit vocabulary to match. However, I absolutely agree with Isabel’s observation that ‘it would be to the detriment of literature if nobody wrote sex scenes’.
I find the term ‘sex scene’ a little troubling when it comes to fiction as it echoes the vocabulary of film and television (or even art). The term scene is always coupled with sex but it’s not often used to describe other passages of fiction. It also suggests the visual – that depictions of sex are about what you see – whereas the power of words extends directly into thoughts, emotions and the other senses.
There’s an argument that writers should self-censor because, as these scenes are difficult to write, there’s a lot of bad writing about sex. This view is perpetuated by the likes of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards. I’m sure the Literary Review could find plenty of examples of bad writing about other situations but people wouldn’t find them as amusing, which is probably a symptom of British embarrassment when the subject is discussed in public.
In itself, I can’t believe that sex is an impossible subject to write about. Just because it’s perceived as difficult to get right that’s not an argument to stop trying – more the opposite. If writers retreated from the hidden and potentially uncomfortable then novels would become terribly banal.
Isabel quotes Irish author John Banville on the reason he thinks sex in fiction is so difficult: ‘What people feel they are doing is so discontinuous with what they are actually doing.’
This seems to be a cop out. The differences between a person’s perceptions and the ‘reality’ of what they’re actually doing are a staple of fiction. There are plenty of instances in other fictional situations where feelings are disconnected from actuality – grisly murders, for example.
Discussing Banville, the On The Literary Sofa post argues that ‘sex, which [is described] as this extraordinary act, is one of the few aspects of life to remain private, even in an age when we are surrounded by sexual imagery and so many are hooked on “sharing”‘.
There’s much truth and insight to this argument. It’s a paradox that a behaviour which (for most of us) is private is referenced so heavily in all varieties of culture. A quick glance at the shelves of W.H. Smith also illustrates an insatiable curiosity (for both sexes) in what other people are doing (‘Am I normal?).
Perhaps another interpretation of Banville’s words is that is that sex is much less likely to be an activity to which the author has been a third-party observer (at least at first hand). Although this point is not limited to sex – any fantasy or historical novelist has never witnessed or experienced their topic – it might be unique in that it’s an activity that is so universally practised, albeit in private. However, this should surely make it a much more compelling subject to write about.
I suspect the argument that sex is too hard to write about is a canard used by authors who are simply shy and embarrassed. There’s no reason why writers should write on subjects they’re uncomfortable with but it’s disingenuous to justify that by asserting that it’s impossible for anyone else to succeed.
I’m sure that much of the reason many writers avoid writing about sex (particularly in creative writing classes where they may have to read it out or discuss it in person) is because of the fear that readers will blur the distinction between writer and character/narrator (i.e. if someone writes about being spanked or having sex in a public place or so on then they feel that readers will somehow snigger away, having inferred it must all be autobiographical).
Why? Anyone reader who automatically conflated the author with the protagonists in other genres would be considered unable to understand the basic principles of fiction (‘it’s made up’). Countless thriller writers come up with depraved ideas, the vast majority of whom aren’t considered sick-minded individuals.
Similarly, some writers say they’d be embarrassed on behalf of their partners/parents/children if their sex scenes entered the public domain. Again, that’s their personal call, but readers won’t assume that this writing is any more autobiographical than anything else in a novel. And it’s most likely, as with less sensitive topics, that a writer’s experience will be used to create composites of characters or plot events. (In the novel I’m writing, the sex scenes are more likely to draw on university experiences than anything more recent).
Published writers , no matter how high profile, seem to deal easily with any prurient questioning – take E.L. James’s frank but hardly salacious comments. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn easily deflected questions in an interview in last weekend’s Sunday Times– stating how happy her own marriage was and that her husband encouraged her to push the boundaries in her writing as far as she felt necessary.
Most creative writing classes and workshops therefore tiptoe around sex scenes at least until participants know each other better (I think the Open University officially cautions against them). But because (rather than in spite) of the difficulty and potential embarrassment I was determined to workshop a sex scene by the end of my City University course. I’m glad I did that as I’m happy to submit my writing about sex to MA tutors, coursemates and anyone else who’ll read it in a mature way (although I sometimes give a polite warning).
Because it was difficult to push myself for the first workshop I’m a fan of the approach that Isabel describes in her blog post about when she attended a creative writing workshop about sex (a Word Factory Masterclass) that was led by literary novelist Michèle Roberts. She asked the writers to ‘asked us to write a sex scene involving something we’d never done. Cue nervous laughter. Twenty minutes later we were listening to some engaging and hilarious stories about threesomes, dogging and a decadent practice someone had just dreamed up.’
It’s an ingenious approach – deliberately avoiding any autobiographical speculation by instructing writers specifically not to use direct experience. It puts everyone in the same position and it sounds like it was very funny. Sex can be a tremendous source of humour in real life but intentionally amusing sex scenes are arguably relatively rare in fiction. Not all funny sex has to be bad sex either. Good humorous writing about sex – as with any subject – means laughing with the characters and the writing, rather than at it.
I suspect there’s also a similar issue with readers. One’s private reaction to an erotic scene in a novel might be much more awkward to admit to others than pretending it’s hilariously funny or marginalising its importance — the reaction ‘less is more’ seems to be useful code for saying ‘Of course I’m not a prude but I’d rather die than admit I got sexually aroused’.
It seems to be motivated from the same discomfort that inspires the Bad Sex Awards – the notion that there’s writing about sex can be classified into either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I’m sure there are many occasions when less detail is preferable but it shouldn’t be misapplied into a general rule that says all such writing should be brief. In some contexts whole chapters in the bedroom could be necessary or appropriate.
(As an aside, I usually find ‘less is more’ to be a particularly unhelpful comment if used generally in feedback. Without pointing out which of the ‘more’ should be discarded and which of the ‘less’ should be retained, it’s really a cryptic way of saying ‘be more concise’, which is a principle that all writers should use anyway. It’s similar to another bête noire of mine – ‘murder your darlings’. Some misguided people interpret this as advising all writers to delete any writing that they think is good – one of the stupidest pieces of advice ever. What it should mean is ‘don’t be self-indulgent’ but even that apparently sound advice is difficult to apply – one reader’s self-indulgence is another’s literary masterpiece.)
It’s good that someone who writes a popular literary blog that, as is pointed out in the post has hardly mentioned the subject in past, is brave enough to avoid the easy route of trivialising and ridiculing of writing about sex.
It’s not being depraved or perverted or unusual to be aroused (mentally or physically) by well-written writing — it touches what it is to be human and good writing can also evoke physical reactions in other ways — raising heartbeat with suspense stories and so on.
Anyone reading this far might think my novel is stuffed with sex scenes. It’s not — but it’s a modern novel with a male-female relationship at its core and the attraction between the characters is key to driving the plot.
As it stands, the first sex scene is well over a third into the novel and there’s probably no more than half a dozen in total and the narrative is only in flagrante delicto two or three times. It’s much more likely that the writing sets the scene or explores the consequences, particularly through dialogue.
Using all the feedback patiently offered me by my coursemates and writing friends, I’ve worked out the parameters that I feel I’m comfortable with and competent in writing. I find there’s a problem with diction — it’s difficult to tread the line between medical terminology and euphemism (or the overblown imagery that earns a Bad Sex Award).
While words like cock seem to do the job (so to speak) for the male anatomy there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory word for the female equivalent. (I get puzzled when some writers substitute the abstract noun ‘sex’ for the concrete – as in ‘he touched her sex’.) But words like ‘pussy’ seem either too American-porno (or Mrs Slocombe) and the c word sets off a debate that would take another blog post to discuss.
Similarly with the actual act of sexual intercourse itself — there’s a limit to how much language can enhance the mechanics. But while most sex could be represented as a basic biological transaction, its immediate context could reveal much about the relationship between characters. For example, even in relatively ‘vanilla’ sex, characters might use more anonymising positions in which they don’t see each other’s faces.
While there might be limits to the variety of description of sex itself, assuming the novel or story isn’t purely for titillation, there’s a huge role for fiction to illuminate its anticipation, desires and consequences.
If it’s true to life, it should reflect that it’s part of the human condition to understand that we’re not always motivated by rational, intellectual choices. I’m fascinated by the subconscious, subliminal, instinctive, inexplicable desires that are drivers of our behaviour. And these are universal. While it might be more socially conventional for men to be portrayed as being more driven by sex, it would be an unfortunate (and perhaps incompetent) man who’d never experienced in private the formidably pleasurable force of female sexual desire.
Sometimes we do things we know are wrong and may have catastrophic consequences that are purely based on physical impulses that might come from dark places we don’t understand. That’s surely an incredibly fruitful subject for fiction.
And cultural values change as I was reminded when I visited the Pompeii and Hurculaneum exhibition at the British Museum at the weekend. The Romans would be puzzled that we were having this debate at all. They thought nothing of murals of people having sex or ubiquitous representations of phalluses (wind chimes were a favourite!). And the statue of what Pan was doing with the goat probably was beyond the imaginations of anyone at Isabel’s Word Factory Masterclass.
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 Landscape, which 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 Wainor 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 newLooking 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, Kimble, which 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 Britainseries 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 Gridby 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 Britain, which 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 .
…asÂ Boris Johnson inimitably saidÂ last night in Hyde Park — before his brilliant put-down of Mitt Romney. Well, my Olympomania Geiger counter has been building up to Zoink steadily over the last few weeks but Boris’s ‘Are we ready?’ speech seems to now catch what seems like a suddenly enthusiastic zeitgeist.
Last night the Olympic Torch came within a hundred yards of where I work for the ‘day job’. It was due to arrive about 6.20pm and there was no way I was going to miss it. Expecting big crowds, quite a few people buggered off out of the office early.Â In that respect there seems to be two types of people. Those that prefer to preserve their routine from disruption as much as possible and those who are intrigued by the novelty and the new experience. I’d suggest that writers, and creative people generally, would hopefully fall into the second group.
I waited on Birdcage Walk (on what a policeman disconcertingly described to me as a grassy knoll). I saw from distance the bizarre spectacle of the Secretary General of the United Nations handing over the Olympic Torch (I knew it was Ban Ki Moon as I was watching the live TV picturesÂ on my iPadÂ coming from a helicopter overhead ).
In a slight touch of serendipity the torchbearer in my photo is (I believe from the BBC
commentary) Jon Sayer, a Scout leader who rescued someone from a swollen river, who comes from Todmorden, a Â West Yorkshire town near where I was brought up that has a passing reference in my novel.
I avoided the tube and walked direct to Marylebone Station, passing by Buckingham Palace and having to detour round the torch’s route into Hyde Park — and the atmosphere was fantastic. People were standing on bollards and hanging off lampposts to get a view. A group of Brazilians were parading with their flag around Wellington Arch. Although London in the summer is normally teeming with foreign tourists, there seemed to be a huge number of overseas visitors flocking towards the parks and there were many international TV anchors in position in front of Buckingham Palace.
Perhaps because I’ve been working in Westminster in the Â writing-time-sapping ‘day job’ for most of the last year, I’ve become fascinated by the way the Olympic preparations have gradually come together — accelerating over the last monthÂ and especially over the last week or so.
It’s not so muchÂ the big symbols like the rings on Tower Bridge but the small, mundane but essential and attentive details that Â haveÂ almostÂ had me welling up. For exampleÂ the lurid bright pink venue signs in the tube stations or the direction signs back to tube stations that have been sprouting on street corners and all over the parks.
(Is that because I try to cultivate a writers’ habit of close observation or that I’m a sign-nerdÂ who did A-level Geography and interested in aspects of place and setting (see my interest in geosemiotics).
It’s also slightly touching to see the Olympic ‘pods’ with their ambassadors in Olympic T-
shirts who’ve been put in the parks and on the streets to point visitors in the right direction — although Blue Badge guides they appear not to be. Â AndÂ the incredible politeness of the soldiers drafted in for securityÂ seems fundamentally British. I chatted to some in St. James’s Park on Thursday. These people were probably in Afghanistan a few weeks ago — now they’re pointing tourists in the right direction for Big Ben.
Even though it’s been coming for seven years, when I see the signs to ‘Olympic Park’ I almost have to pinch myself, having memories of watching past Olympics from what have seemed mostly exotic and/or obscure places. I remember visiting Barcelona after their games and constantly being reminded of the Olympics and once I had a tour of the Munich Olympic stadium and a meal in the aerial revolvingÂ restaurantÂ there that still had resonance thirty years after the event.
Of course, the Olympics also fascinate as a sporting as well as cultural and symbolic festival. I was on holiday in Scotland during the Beijing games and, having had a tent wrecked by the Scottish weather, spent much of the rest of the time watching Olympic coverage, which became compulsive after a while.
It’s a shame that access to the Olympic Park itself has been so restricted. I’ve had a few glimpses of the stadium and facilities from Hackney Wick and Stratford but I’m sure that people might feel a greater sense of affinity with the Olympic Park itself had it not been cordoned off with extraordinary secrecy. But maybe that’s the point — impress us with the shock of the new?
But perhaps impatiently wanting to go and visit the area shows how the locality has been transformed â€“ would anyone have been so excited about visiting Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham or Waltham Forest seven years ago?
There have been plenty of British cock-ups to justifiably complain about — ticketing was a
hopeless fiasco. I spent years working on booking systems for airlines and it was inept to use a concert system like Ticketmaster for such a volume of traffic. And I can’t understand why I got no tickets at all on my first attempt when I’d applied for some football tickets — that haven’t even been sold now.
Bizarrely, I ended up with tickets for one of the most sought after events — not the athletics that I also applied for — but the infamous beach volleyball. (My excuse is that I was working through the list of sports alphabetically, not realising I could only apply for three the second time round. And the sessions are for both men’s and women’s volleyball, which no one mentions, of course.) I go on Sunday and I’m also hoping to see the start of the women’s cycling road race as it heads through Hyde Park Corner and Knightsbridge and then go to the London Live Event in Hyde Park.
The corporatism increasingly jars with the growing feeling of excitement, which is all the more genuine for arriving seemingly spontaneously. Why can we only pay with Visa? McDonald’s and Coke are the ‘preferred’ food and drink. The brand infringement rules are draconian. But most of these restrictions come via the IOC and we’ve had to accept them, although we police them in our assiduously British way.
And the mascots are ludicrous, although I feel their names have some uncanny personal associations for me (seeÂ post from over two years ago). But that’s also a key national characteristic — the resigned humour that comes from the absurd and ridiculous.
London 2012 has already had one real-life moment of stunning absurdity worthy of the
brilliant Twenty Twelve satire before it has officially started — when the South Korean flag was displayed against the North Korean women’s football team (and Twenty Twelve had just sent up women’s football). I can imagine the Hugh Bonneville characterâ€™s shambling attempts to defuse that row.
It’s predicted that a billion people will apparently watch the Opening Ceremony, which I’m looking forward to forÂ the musicÂ as much as anything else — rumoured to include Muse, the Clash, Queen, the Prodigy, Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse, the Specials, the Doctor Who theme, bizarrely, ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols. It’s appropriate that the ceremony will also featuring the world’s greatest living songwriter, Paul McCartney, who contributed so much to London’s profile in the 60s.
I’m looking forward to see how the opening ceremony contrasts the Britain of Blake’s green and pleasant lands with the gritty, urban post-industrial Britain of some of the more contemporary artists. My novel also contains many themes derived from the differences and similarities between the two extremes (the London of the City, Shoreditch and Hackney and the rural Chilterns).
I do have a few reservations as there hasn’t been as much hype for a televised public event since, er, theÂ MillenniumÂ River of Fire.
As mentioned in previous posts, Iâ€™m kicking myself that Iâ€™ve not managed to get my novel that, in parts, out into the world by now, as in parts it certainly celebrates London â€“ and some areas close to the Olympic Park. So itâ€™s a slightly selfish hope of mine that the Olympics builds interest so readers want to know more.
What stirs the profoundest emotion in me is that the Olympics that goes beyond the corporatism and even the sport itself that shows something about the human spirit. The Olympics are a symbol of generosity and hospitality. We’re welcoming everyone else in the world to our city for our games — either in person or via television — to say â€˜this is what and who we are and we want to enjoy sharing itâ€™. Itâ€™s our London â€“ itâ€™s the city that weâ€™ve all created and weâ€™re going to throw a huge party.
The enormous global prestige of the Olympics is perhaps difficult to appreciate, even a few hours before the opening ceremony. But hearing the news in 2005 that London had been awarded the games was one of those ‘I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing’ moments. I was in a meeting conference room in Greater London House in Camden and someone got the news on their BlackBerry. Everyone in the meeting was stunned because we were so conditioned to losing — London and the UK just didn’t win anything like this. It didn’t happen. But it had — and it was literally unbelievable.
Now it’s here. As the cover of Time Out says (and I agree) it’s the greatest time to be in the greatest city in the world and I feel extraordinarily proud.
Here are a couple of contrasting photos taken in the last eighteen hours of the different aspects of England that feature in the novel.
The first is one of the photos I took on the fascinating Love Art London graffiti tour of Shoreditch last night. I’ll have to try and remember the artists featured — or perhaps someone can comment. I’ll post more up on the blog soon and describe the tour in more detail — but not while it’s amazingly sunny outside.
And the other photo is of the verdant English countryside. After the miserable, wet April and early May, the grass and trees have had plenty of water to push into the leaf burst so this year has the most vibrant, stunning greens for a long while — showing the beautiful landscape at its best.
The team travels to the Chilterns, an area steeped in ancient crafts and traditions, which is less than 50 miles from the centre of London. Paul Heiney meets the men still making bricks by hand, historian Bettany Hughes tells the story of boating on the Thames, and chef Mike Robinson visits a farm rearing a centuries-old English duck.
Countrywise seems like an ITV landlubbers’ version of the BBC’s Coast — a bunch of TV-friendly faces descend on somewhere very rural and quirky — and ‘discover the stories behind it’ or some such.
It’s presented by Paul Heiney, whom I still remember from being one of Esther Rantzen’s acolytes on That’s Life along with Glyn Worsnip and Kieran Prendeville.
They’re at Waterperry Gardens now, which isn’t really in the Chilterns — it’s in a place so flat it gets flooded by the River Thame — funny how they didn’t feature the nearby M40 too.
But the overall premise of the programme was that it was amazing that this area of beech woodlands, quaint hand-made brick houses, free-range ducks in the forests and so on was a ‘mere stones throw from the capital’. There was a view repeatedly shown throughout the programme which was filmed from Coombe Hill towards the south-west — if there was an incredibly high-definition TV picture you might have been able to see where I live. It’s exactly the same view as the first of the panoramic photos in this posting from a few weeks ago.
There were a couple of local pubs I saw in passing — The Stag and Huntsman in Hambleden (near Henley) and the George and Dragon in Quainton (north of Aylesbury).
The Chilterns must be almost unique in this country as an area of outstanding natural beauty that very few people actually go and stay away in. The North and South Downs are similar distances from London but I’d bet that the North Downs get more tourists — and the South Downs definitely would.
So the area is potentially rather good for a novel setting — very few places in the country can offer the contrast of amazingly well known andÂ surprisinglyÂ unknown within the space of 40 miles.
Brian True-May, the producer and co-creator ofÂ Midsomer Murdershas been suspended by ITV over remarks in an interview in theÂ Radio Times,which has just popped through my letterbox, in which he says ‘It’s not British, it’s very English. We are a cosmopolitan society in this country, but if you watchÂ Midsomer you wouldn’t think so.’
This is a fairly unarguable observation about the programme but he then goes on to say ‘It wouldn’t be the English village with [ethnic minorities]. Suddenly we might be in Slough.’ He then says Causton in the series is based on Slough, although in the series both Wallingford and Thame (both places extremely unlike Slough) are used for filming the town. He then goes on to make the comments that probably earned him his suspension ‘And if you went to Slough you wouldn’t see a white face there. We’re the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way.’
This raises all kinds of general questions about drama and fiction and their representation of authenticity. There are plenty of books, TV programmes and films that concentrate on certain ethnic groups — one of my favourite TV series, Larry David’sÂ Curb Your Enthusiam, largely features (and derives its humour from) Jewish characters. Most soap operas now have a sizeable proportion of ethnic minority characters that reflects the diversity of modern urban society so it might be argued thatÂ Midsomer Murdersis similarly reflected the demographic of its location.
I’m particularly interested in this as my novel is set in notional Midsomer county. I’ve just submitted an extract to my tutor on the MA where the characters actually say that the pretty lanes and cottages that surround the Angel are used for filming ‘murder mystery things’. Midsomer county isn’t anywhere near the Somerset village of Midsomer Norton as many people might think — it’s essentially the Chilterns and a bit of adjoining Oxfordshire and Aylesbury Vale. (The proposed HS2 high speed rail line is almost going to run straight through Badger’s Drift — which is a village near Great Missenden called The Lee in reality.) The locations are of great interest — Joan Street runs a very informative website on this and has even published a book on the locations.
I live in a village right in the middle of it and I can tell Mr True-May that he has his facts wrong about pure English ethnicity. Just in two or three roads I know of at least two French people, a Ukranian, a Latvian and at least half a dozen people with Asian backgrounds (one has a business making home-made Indian chutneys and sells them at the local school fÃªtes).
Admittedly this is at the end of the village with less thatched cottages and more modern housing but if I drive up the winding lane in the morning towards the church and the chocolate box cottages with wishing wells in the garden then I often pass a very friendly black chap who walks a circuit of the village every day. It’s maybe under the UK average in terms of ethnicity but it’s certainly not all-white and I’m sure most people who live in Midsomer-like locations would find it offensive if Brian True-May’s comments were used to suggest there’s any more racism in the countryside than anywhere else.
If there’s a skewed demographic in the countryside, it’s nothing directly connected with race, it’s more to do with the age of the population — and this may inhibit social mobility more widely. Even in the Chilterns there are a lot of retired people in the prettiest thatched cottages and while there’s a fair number of school age children as their parents move out of more urban areas for quality of life, there’s a lack of affordable housing for people in their twenties.
In The Angel, Emma comes from the village but has had to work hard at her career and marry a similar high-achiever to afford a nice place to live. There’s no way Kim could ever afford to live there if she didn’t get accommodation with the pub and barman Gabriel lives with his very rich parents. The ageing demographic is a real obstacle for James as his geriatric diners prefer to have scampi and chips rather than some creation with palm hearts and pomegranate juice.
The question of reflecting the ethnicity of characters in my novel’s setting is something that has crossed my mind, especially as it features the pub as a meeting place for the whole village. I’d like to try and represent this aspect authentically and naturally but as a novel has a limited number of principal characters and a number of minor ones it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking in terms of quotas.
The wider subject of integration into a different culture is, however, one of the major themes of the novel and I have a non-British protagonist who will hopefully explore some of these issues. Kim’s lived in London for a number of years and certainly feels quite comfortable in her identity as a Londoner — but move 40 miles away into Midsomer Murders land and she’ll find attitudes are quite different.
Also, she’s the nationality that it’s probably still most ‘permissible’ for the British to insult — even more than the French, Irish or Australians — she’s a German. She’ll have to put up with a similar sort of ‘banter’ to that which passed for comedy on ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ Â forty years ago. But she’s give as good as she gets and The Angel will be partly the story of the sort of integration in deepest, rural England that won’t be found onÂ Midsomer Murders.
One fascinating fact is that Kim would very likely have watched Midsomer Murders (or Inspektor Barnaby as it’s called)Â in Germany (or her parents would) as its version of Englishness is exported to 231 countries. A Google news search on the Brian True-May story today brought up three German websites with the story — including this one from Stern — so a story set in this location definitely has international appeal.
And spring seems to have arrived here. The countryside is a beautiful place to live when the days are long and the sun is out but it’s horribly bleak during January and February — dark, wet. muddy, dormant. But despite the awful December weather, the bees (and wasps) were out today and I finally finished off the 12.75kg sack of bird seed that has seen through the winter countless robins, wrens, sparrows, blackbirds, starlings, various tits and finches and even woodpigeons and woodpeckers when the weather was at its worst.And if you listen carefully you can hear the newborn lambs bleating from the fields.
Continuing on the theme of end of year greetings and the real Christmas message (not the ‘buy buy buy’ one that Amazon stopped imparting once it realised it couldn’t deliver its goods) here’s a very apt scene that I took on Sunday 19th December — on the way back from the Nine Lessons and Carols service. I’ve not photoshopped the colours — it came out like this with the moonlight on the snow.
I went for a longish walk on Friday afternoon between a few villages that may influence ‘The Angel’ and took a few photos. This one was immediately after a heavy, thundery shower had passed over a few minutes before.
The light is very unusual — it was about 8pm so the sun was low and the light was diffused by the atmospheric conditions. The texture of the wheat is interesting — with the footpath and tractor tracks a very dark contrast. Also the expanse of the wheat contrasts with the village (Loosely Row) on the hill in the distance. (The photo is just off the A4010 close to the highest point on the pass through Saunderton — somewhere that can be surprisingly bleak in winter.) Perhaps just the sort of inspiration for an artist?
I went to one of the Bucks Open Studios events this afternoon at St. Dunstan’s Church, Monks Risborough. There was some really fascinating stuff there — a lady had done the most stunning watercolours of (of all things) parsnips and carrots, even salsify. There were some very interesting interpretations of the Chiltern landscape — some were linoleum engravings and others were very vividly coloured abstract views.
Outside the church were some metal sculptures — and a couple of these were of the famous red kites that I often mention on Facebook. Recently these incredible birds of prey, which have a wingspan of about six feet, have almost constantly hovered overhead. I drove down the M40 after a City class and knew it was time to pull off soon when I saw the birds circling over the motorway at Stokenchurch. There were four circling the garden this morning. The sculpture below is pretty much life sized — it’s by James Sansome. The event has its own web-page with details of the artists.
Monks Risborough church is extremely old — there’s been a church there for at least a thousand years. Most of the building is 14th century but the font is 12th century — 900 years old — and came from an older church. The boundaries of the parish are apparently the oldest in the whole country — and the shape of the parish is very long and thin to apportion parts of the contrasting landscape features to the village. These include wooded hilltops, steep grazing on the escarpment, the spring line (where the settlement is) and then the more fertile low-lying flat farmland in the Vale of Aylesbury.
The geography is amazingly varied and makes me think the general location is a great place to locate the action in a novel. I’m going to fictionalise the actual location of The Angel but it will be close to the hills and all their celtic and mystical associations (there’s an ancient cross cut into the chalk of Whiteleaf Hill, which overlooks Monks Risborough) and there are some very large areas of woodland where it’s easy to go for a quiet, contemplative walk. However, turn the other way and you very soon get to some remote farming areas which, while not quite as desolate as the Fens, might not be too dissimilar to somewhere like deepest Devon.
I went for a run through these places today and I ran down one lane for about two miles (which takes me near enough 20 minutes) and didn’t see a single car, just a farmer’s Land Rover and no other humans apart from a cyclist who nearly ran me over and a horsey-looking blonde woman mucking out a stables (not noticeably fat-bottomed unlike the ones I wrote about in my last reading). In fact the whole area is pretty horsey — there are a few studs around and one of the biggest point-to-point events in the country is held just down the road at Easter.
All this made me realise, as I was running, that The Angel’s location re-inforces one of its themes. It will be in a place that in one way is very connected with London (on Wednesday I left the Queen Boadicea in EC1 at 10.45pm and still didn’t have to get the last train home). But go the other way and it’s easy to find isolation and a connection to a way of life that’s still incredibly traditional.
So the novel’s location is on a boundary — a kind of liminal zone. And that’s the point where its characters are too — they’re on the boundary between urban and rural, commercial and artistic. They’re on the edge too and wondering which way to turn.
During the slightly boozy session about ten of us had in the Queen Boadicea after the class, we were all put on the spot to say what our novel was about — and any personal elements to it. I said mine was ‘escape’ — and a lot of the stuff I write seems to share that theme — but both main characters do want to escape their predicaments at the start of the novel. Emily’s suggestion that I take a look at Ann Tyler’s ‘The Accidental Tourist‘ as it’s in a similar sort of sub-genre maybe also re-inforces the theme of reaching an edge and thinking about escape. True as the answer was, it wasn’t the one that some of the class had hoped for, given that I’d read what’s now becoming my notorious sex scene on Monday (of which more in a coming post — no pun intended).