My novel is set partly in London (the City and über cool Shoreditch) where you only have to walk down the street or take a bus to realise there’s an abundance of non-native inhabitants.
And it doesn’t need a UKIP party political broadcast to point out that the recent changes in the population of London and the consequent changes in its character are particularly linked to rights of free movement within the European Union and its expansion eastwards.
One of my main characters, Kim, is a proud German but also an equally proud Londoner and thorough Anglophile — and she’s happy to live in cosmopolitan London indefinitely. It’s the hub of her world as an artist — but the price of living at the centre is the huge expense.
Kim goes to live in the countryside and her adjustment to life outside London — in a symbolic ‘green and pleasant land’ — unfolds as a significant element of the novel’s narrative. Unlike London, with its diverse neighbourhoods and coexisting communities, Kim has to gradually assimilate into a more closed, conservative and less fragmented community, which nonetheless already hosts a large number of immigrants.
The storyline may resonate with the inevitable debate about Britain’s relationship with Europe which will rumble on for the next few years — as whatever the outcome of the election Europe is bound to be a very hot topic.
Given that I’m rather sceptical about the supposed mood of Euroscepticism in the country, I was intrigued by the reception given to Le Grand Départ — the start of that most continental of events. Over the last weekend the Tour de France staged what was effectively a takeover of large parts of Yorkshire and it rode into London on Monday.
How would the supposedly Eurosceptic British react to an invasion of foreigners spearheaded by the oldest enemy of them all? We loved it.
The road that connects Buckingham Palace with the Houses of Parliament — the axis of British government — was invadedon Monday by all things French — French TV cameras, banners in French, adverts for French supermarkets that we don’t even have in this country, the gendarmerie riding around London and even commentary in French relayed around the Mall and St. James’s Park. Surely this kind of thing would give Nigel Farage palpitations?
And the French invasion went right through London and beyond with the road to Tower Bridge sealed off because the French invasion procession was coming right past the Tower of London — look out for the crown jewels — and, as my photo shows, it caused huge disruption to the daily operation of the City of London.
Were those entire Cities financial types w ho deserted their offices en masse at 3.15pm on a busy Monday heading to the barricades to remonstrate with meddlesome Europeans whose garlic-fuelled bike ride was interfering with the pinnacle of human endeavour — swapping money from one account to the next at the speed of light?
Perhaps Nigel preferred the Tour de France to the tur din România (and if you thought I Google translated that you’d be dead right) and the little Englanders might be relieved the whole moving carnival would soon be back in the land of hundreds of fromages (hang on, isn’t that us too these days?) .
But actually the hordes of City evacuees — and the many spectators from office windows — weren’t objecting to the French incursion — they were celebrating. Because, as the Olympics also showed two years ago, there’s nothing more the British like than to welcome the rest of the world and lay on a rather good party.
London often provides the backdrop to the historic and exotic but this Tour de France was inspired because it also visited one of the most diehard conservative realms of the national consciousness — Yorkshire. ‘There’s nowt about thy fancy foreign ways that impresses me.’ And I can say that without much fear of being accused of regional stereotyping because I was brought up about three miles from the route of Stage 2.
On Sunday the cyclists pedalled through the landscape of my formative years — the foothills of the Pennines. I used to frequently walk on the bleak moors that mark the Lancashire-Yorkshire border (the landscape that inspired the Brontës, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath amongst others) and the aerial views of the hills, valleys and reservoirs between Haworth, Hebden Bridge and Ripponden looked forbiddingly beautiful on television.
I would have loved to have travelled up north for the race. The atmosphere amongst the 10,000 people who lined the route in the mile or so of the race where the route crossed on to the Lancashire side looked incredible – and what might not have been obvious from the television pictures was that, as the main roads were closed all day, the vast majority of the spectators in this section had to walk or cycle three miles, involving a near thousand feet vertical climb from the valley below.
I came across some amazing photographs on Facebook of Carrefour floats and French motorcycling gendarmes passing flag-waving crowds on roads in places so inhospitable that there are no houses for several miles (and these photos had bikes on them unlike mine — which failed to capture any cyclists due to various camera disasters). The crowds gathered only a couple of miles away from some of the most notoriously desolate peat bogs on the Pennine Way.
The landlady of the White House Inn, on Blackstone Edge — one of only two dwellings along a five mile stretch of the A58, remarked that the visit of the Tour de France ‘made me proud to be British‘.
This isn’t as bizarrely contradictory as it sounds – welcoming visitors is something the British take pride in – and is at odds with the rhetoric of the isolationists and Eurosceptics.
My fictional idyllic village has made many foreign residents feel very welcome — American art lecturers, Polish cooks, Indian techies and so on — and they play a full part in English country life.
While the Tour de France was a novelty and a spectacle it still showed a desire to engage with Europe – and even better if it was also an exercise in the indulgence of another typical British trait — celebrating an excuse to get drunk.
The caravan that travelled through Yorkshire and into the heart of London was a peculiar celebration of French and Yorkshire promotions — big Visit Yorkshire floats, motorised Fruit Shoots and a speeding Carrefour mountain.
The whole spectacle showed how the British embraced a temporarily transplanted icon of Europe in a way that Jeremy Deller might describe as celebrating ‘Joy in People’ — even if they were mostly French and on bikes.
Do you think the Tour de France confounded the Eurosceptic stereotypes — I’d love to read any comments below.
Well, ‘the end’ might be an over-dramatic way of putting it but it does mark a significant watershed: 1st October (tomorrow at the time of writing) marks the end of my Creative Writing MA course. It’s the day that we students have spent just over three years persevering towards — when we hand over the fruits of our labours to the tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University to cast their verdict.
It’s also why, when there are only a couple of hours left in the whole month of September, there have been no updates on this blog during the month. Getting the novel into a decent enough shape to submit as a text for academic assessment has been bloody hard, knackering work — about two months intense effort over and above the normal writing time I try to eke out around the day job and other commitments — so not enough time even to post up the holiday photos I hinted about in the last update (but persevere to the end of this post and any disappointment might be alleviated in that department).
Part of the reason it’s been something of a grind is that I’d not realised, until it was mentioned by fellow students, Kerry and Anne, that we were required to hand in hard copies of the novel — it’s effectively the dissertation component of the Masters degree — and with a dissertation the university requires the document not only to be physically printed but professionally bound like, er, a real book!
Fortunately there’s no additional commentary or analysis required (that tends to come at PhD level) but, with a minimum word count of 60,000, it’s a very weighty document for all students. And, as I have no worries about meeting the minimum word count (thankfully there isn’t maximum), then I’m expecting my dissertation to be something of a bookend when I pick my copy up from the bookbinders.
Interestingly, my MSc dissertation for the OU was a much more manageable 17,500 words — not much of gripping story there, though — and I was able to submit that purely electronically. I later had it printed and bound for my own reference — and it sits doing a bit of bookshelf ego massaging next to the MBA dissertation from years ago that I actually printed on an inkjet printer before having it bound (that would probably cost me about £500 in ink if I tried it now on my current money pit of an HP printer).
It seems ridiculous to have been working on a novel for so long and to have to suddenly shift into a higher gear when the end of the course suddenly creeps up. But I guess that’s the way of deadlines — I know from some of my published and agented friends how they’re often set exacting deadlines. Most published books would probably only live on their authors’ word processors if it wasn’t for that external kick up the backside. But I had a deadline and I made it, however generous it seems in retrospect.
To get the revision process kicked off in earnest, at the start of August I went through the laborious process of printing off my draft and then took it on holiday to France and Germany to read. Relaxing in a lovely tranquil gîte in the Vosges mountains (see picture below) perhaps put me in a similar frame of mind perhaps to an authentic reader. I had the weird experience (a bit like when characters ‘take over’) of looking at the text a little like a reader rather than the person who wrote it — I surprised myself by getting to the end of a chapter and feeling that reader’s compulsion to start straight away on the next one. And I knew the story!
I’ve spent the last six weeks working through the notes that I made — making some very difficult decisions about dropping whole sections (the infamous ‘calendar’ chapters that I workshopped have gone), taking fragments from several chapters and altering them to form completely new scenes (there’s one continuous event in the novel that I constructed from three previously completely separate sections) and trawling through the text for consistency and checking facts (for example, I had to change a child’s age in several places when I realised there was a scene when she was in a pushchair).
Having to hand in hard copies effectively tests your self-publishing skills. I spent hours checking pedantically through the whole manuscript for formatting errors, stray punctuation and the smallest typo (although it’s sod’s law that many will inevitably remain). I had to worry about mirroring the margins for the binding, ensure that sections started on odd pages and lots of other issues that writers who e-mail Word document to a publisher don’t have to pore over.
Once I’d formatted the PDF for the professional printers it was only a few minutes’ work to create a reasonably passable e-book version of the finished MA version of the novel. It’s now on my Kindle and has made me wonder if I should spend a little more time polishing it and take the plunge and properly self-publish it. Maybe.
Certainly, the self-publishing route is becoming a much more common way of getting agent interest — as I discovered in some panel discussions when I made a fleeting visit for the second year to the York Festival of Writing at the beginning of September.
I was also surprised to hear in a session by a couple of literary agents that almost all the manuscripts that they receive as submissions are in need of a thorough line and copy edit.
Moreover they expect this, almost to the point of being a bit wary of the most perfectly edited examples, on the basis that authors are better employed on the more creative tasks of the publishing process — inventing ideas, plots and characters — rather than combing through manuscripts for errors. Proof reading is usually more effective if done by someone new to the text and it’s also a dedicated (and very different) skill in itself.
I may blog later at more length about my visit to York — Isabel Costello has written a very good blog post about the benefits of attending for a second time.
I thought I was being rather brave by attending Anastasia Sparks’s workshop on writing erotica. However, everyone seemed to be surprised that there were more men in the room than women.
However, as might have been anticipated some of the men were much more uncomfortable than the women when asked to do an exercise in erotica and then read out what they’d written — using some of the words written on the blackboard in the photo below (guess which words I volunteered). Two made rather lame excuses and refused to share even a mildly erotic word.
As the novel is going to be academically assessed, I didn’t want to take the risk of submitting something that looked unfinished so I’ve gone through the rather bizarre and very time-consuming process of using Acrobat’s ‘Read Out Loud’ function to speak every line of the novel in its default, robotic American monotone while I’ve read the text on the screen. (It takes about five minutes to read and correct each page this way and it’s not foolproof as corrections have a way of introducing their own typos.)
After working on something for so long, it’s amazing how many errors you can spot just by hearing the words are spoken out loud. There are some sentences in the book that have taken over three years to write — and I was still altering them at the last minute.
The proofing process over the last few days has been exhausting and, in places, very frustrating when I came across something that I wasn’t happy with but which was too complex to fix in the time available.
I’m also greatly indebted to Guy Russell, from the City course who’s very technically knowledgeable and a wonderfully humorous writer himself, for reading through a half-edited version of the manuscript in a week and giving me extremely very helpful and honest feedback.
I also did some very analytical MSc-type things with spreadsheets — making graphs of chapter lengths and finding a Word macro that allowed me to count all the unique instances of words in the novel — the number is easily into five figures. I rather like the fact I got ‘rhombus’ in the book (it’s about plate shape not a treatise on geometry), not so sure about ‘sentient’ though.
So today the novel is hitting the press at a printers and bookbinders just off the Holloway Road in London, in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium — there’s a little serendipity there as I made James an Arsenal fan and the friendly woman I’ve been talking to there is called Magda — like one of my favourite characters in the novel.
Sadly, there will only be a handful of very expensive copies but I’ll pick up a copy for myself tomorrow and it can sit proudly on my shelf — I’ll try and post a photo of it at some point when I’ve recovered from the whole draining process.
There’s still plenty I’d like to change about what I’ve submitted but at least it’s a completed novel with a beginning, middle and end, even I might dare suggest a narrative arc, and no obvious ‘work in progress’ bits of sticking plaster holding it together.
While I was at the Festival of Writing I had two one-to-one meetings with agents who’d read the first 3,000 words of the novel in advance. As with the same sessions last year, they were very positive about the writing and were keen to see more — asking me very practical questions about the novel and how I came to write it — rather than making lists of recommendations to fix faults. I guess that’s a good sign.
However, having gone through the editing process for the MA submission I realise there’s still a little more structural work that needs doing before I start submitting it in earnest, if I decide that’s the route I want to take. I’ll try to address those and then go through the proofing process again. So, the novel hasn’t quite been put to bed yet.
While I’m going to carry on updating the blog with writing and novel-related posts, I’m not intending to chronicle anything about the submission process, should I steel myself to put myself through that agony. I know from my many friends who are excellent writers that it’s a frustrating and painful process and full of raised and dashed hopes and interminable waiting. Better to maybe start talking about the next book instead.
One of the agents said she’d heard good things about the MMU MA Course, which was quite reassuring, but also took me back a little as I’d recently been so focused on completing the novel as an end in itself.
There are quite a few short courses and events now that promise some professional writers’ feedback on aspiring authors’ work, which is always useful, but what I mentioned to the agent in reply was how valuable it had been to have the input over an extended period each year in the course of three authors, each who’d each published many books of their own.
Rather than see the writing as a one-off, they got to know each student’s style and novel-in-progress over an extended period of time. While the feedback could be challenging at times, it was always encouraging.
However, it was a little disconcerting reading the reviews for my tutor in the second year’s recent book. Nick Royle’s First Novel has a protagonist who’s a creative writing lecturer, working with students on their, er, first novels. I’m sure he completely fictionalised everything in there!
I’m feeling a little rudderless and cast out into the wide-world now as I’ve been more or less constantly on writing courses (often more than one simultaneously) for the last six years. It was September 2007 when I started the Open University’s A215 Creative Writing course (highly recommended) and I’ve gone through several more, including the intensive City Certificate in Novel Writing 2009-2010, to the point where I’ve now completed the MA.
It’s taken way longer than I expected to get to the point where I can hand in a novel with which I’m reasonably happy. There was some material that I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover — ‘Did I really write that then?’ — from years ago but plenty of stuff that made me wince (which hopefully has been mostly excised now).
My friend Kathy, who I’ve known since the Open University Advanced Creative Writing course and is a Creative Writing MA herself, tells me that my writing has improved considerably since she’s known me — so I guess that’s testament to the courses and all the practice that they’ve forced me to put in. Hopefully, the process of writing the next novel (or completing the one that’s been in abeyance for the last three years) will be consequently speedier.
But at the moment, having had plenty of nights going to bed at two and being up by seven, I’m reminded of Adele Parks’s very entertaining keynote speech at this year’s Festival of Writing.
She explained how she completed her first published novel while working in a demanding day-job — ‘Basically, I gave up sleep’.
I’ll second that but wouldn’t recommend it!
Now for those left on tenterhooks by the lack of holiday photos as tantalisingly promised in the previous post, here’s a few with some relevance to the novel.
This is a wonderful view of a bend in the Rhine, taken near Boppard, a place I last visited on a school trip.
Trabants are now as scarce as the remants of the Berlin Wall.
And this peculiar view is of the ladder used by border guards to climb up a border watchtower. I climbed up and down this watchtower ladder near Potsdamer Platz and it was quite hair-raising but what I love most is how the 1980s East German lino has been preserved.
The Hokey Cokey seems to possess the same level of serious reasoning as did last week’s unconvincing and desperately tactical David Cameron speech on an ‘in-out’ referendum on British membership of the EU. His gambling with the country’s political relationship with its nearest neighbours and biggest trading partners infuriated and depressed me but it may not be such a bad thing for my novel Contrary to his short-termist intentions, I suspect he’s raised the political profile of one of its main themes.
While there’s little overtly political in the novel (or this blog), the plot and characters unavoidably raise issues regarding Britain’s relationship with Europe (and, to some extent, the rest of the world). The novel also goes further – highlighting the differences between London and the rest of the UK – which are probably more marked in many significant ways than between London and other European capitals. That London is both an amazing cosmopolitan city as well as the country’s capital is something that Cameron is likely to be aware of himself. But this is a realisation that the engineering of this referendum is designed to disguise in its simplistic pandering to the those holed up in the Home Counties who see London in terms of bearskins and red phone boxes.
So, if Cameron’s speech provokes a prolonged debate the differences between ‘us’ Brits and ‘the foreigners over there’ then the novel might happily chime in with the cultural zeitgeist (how backbench Tories and UKIP must hate that word) – at least in the run-up to the election.
The Angel’s two protagonists, Kim and James, are German and English respectively. She sees herself primarily as a European, influenced by her university experiences in Berlin, but like many Europeans I’ve met myself recently in London, she’s also a committed anglophile who loves the city’s cultural diversity and unrivalled artistic opportunities. Being absolutely fluent in English, there’s no reason she sees to prevent her living here for the rest of her life.
James could only be English – on one hand a rugby-playing bloke but intelligent and enquiring with a self-deprecating attitude to British culture that’s led him into a fascination with the sophistication of Europe. In his case he has a voracious appetite for the techniques of French and Italian cooking and is beguiled but intimidated by modern art.
In a reflection of its setting and the times, the novel also has plenty of other ‘foreign’ characters — Poles, a Romanian, an American and others – and they aren’t just confined to London. However, Kim finds that attitudes can be quite different in the English commuter countryside – the kind of seats represented by the Eurosceptic Tory MPs who sadly seem to have forced Cameron’s hand into the current bodge.
(In reality, the setting for The Angel could well be David Lidington’s Aylesbury seat. Ironically he’s the current Minister for Europe and will be tasked with the thankless task of trying to dream up what on earth to renegotiate with the EU. I know he’s not actually a rabid xenophobe, having met him in person quite a few times – I know him well enough to have exchanged hellos in St. James’s Park.)
She is at first amazed, but quickly becomes accustomed, to being quizzed by amateur enthusiasts about German military strategy in the Second World War – a conflict she thinks has as much relevance to her as the Battle of Hastings does to the English. During the novel she develops a deeper understanding of English character and how that has influenced the culture of London she so value. But, equally, with her über-liberal Shoreditch and Hackney beliefs and behaviour she challenges and changes the reactionary UKIP sympathies of the middle England types — not just towards Europe but also towards their other traditionalist cultural mores.
In common with, I’d guess, the vast majority of most of the EU citizens who fill the tubes and buses in London, Kim would be incredulous that a vote on the UK leaving the EU could seriously be contemplated, especially as it is so contrary to her everyday experiences.
She’d find the referendum prospect unsettling, as well as irrelevant, grudging and ungrateful – not necessarily at face value but for the insular, sneering saloon bar bigotry that oozes from the pores of some of its xenophobic proponents. Also, thinking of an episode of German history that she does know well, as an entartete Künstlerinshe’d worry about the divisive cultural implications of ‘us and them’ attitudes, which could be the thin end of a very nasty wedge.
Not that Kim thinks the core EU countries have got everything right. After all she’s moved to London and likes it here on the periphery outside the Euro and the Schengen Zone.
It’s more that, as someone who sees the wider picture, she despairs when short-term politicking and parochial, self-delusion threatens the relative harmony of one of the most remarkable achievements in history. A previously fractious continent that spent much of the first half of the last century destroying itself has peacefully worked together — and if the worst thing the Eurosceptics can say is the EU prevents our junior doctors working a hundred hours a week then that can’t be too bad. She’d agree with the Swedish Prime Minister who tweeted in response to Cameron: ‘Flexibility sounds fine, but if you open up to a 28-speed Europe, at the end of the day there is no Europe at all. Just a mess.’
Also, part of her predicament at the start of the novel is a result of the huge amount of immigration into London in the past few years – as an artist she’s being priced out of even the lower-cost areas of the capital.
As I mentioned in a previous post, when I told the German organiser of an exhibition in Shoreditch of German artists that I was writing a novel about a German artist working in Shoreditch, the first thing he asked was what she did for money. When I said she lived in Homerton, he said that was still expensive for an artist (perhaps why all of the artists he represented hadn’t made a move to London).
I was talking about rents for rooms in shared houses with my ex-City course-mates last week (we had lunch at an Old Street restaurant so trendy the chefs wore trilby hats). Apparently in Hackney rooms in unlovely shared houses are going for the upper hundreds per month – a very significant chunk of a yet-to-be established artist’s income.
Part of the reason the novel has a European theme is that I worked for nine years for the corporate headquarters of a pan-European company. For most of that time it was German owned — a member of the Frankfurt DAX30. I mostly had German managers and got to know many German colleagues very well. In fact one of the reasons why I was recruited was that it was thought I’d ‘get on well with the Germans’.
For years I travelled on average every other week to Europe, – usually walking into work through the impressive marble lobby in Hanover (it also had a conference room suite featuring modern artworks). But I also visited virtually every other large Germany city and most other large European capital cities (as well as out of the way places like Oostende and Enschede and debauched conferences in Tenerife and Dubrovnik that provided almost enough material for novels in themselves).
But more tediously, it was often my job to try and sit in meetings and try to get all the nationalities to agree on something — usually a common approach to an IT project. One English colleague compared my job with being an EU negotiator, which to him was his idea of purgatory (there were quite a number who were peeved for years that the British company had been taken over by The Bloody Germans).
One of my tasks was to look beyond the bluster and try to identify what were true cultural differences between countries’ markets and what was common to all — which where the value is unlocked in multi-national companies and the EU itself but it also threatens comfortable vested interests.
Often people argued that they should be allowed to do whatever they liked in their countries because they were just so unique. At a peer level, there wasn’t much voluntary co-operation and the countries only tended to reach collective agreement when either offered cash to do so or be told so by the Vorstand (the board), who crucially had the power to fire a country’s manager. That’s why the idea of a looser, á la carte EU seems like a pipedream to me (and most intelligent Eurosceptics know it).
It was often infuriating but was always fascinating to observe national cultural differences – which sometimes lived up to stereotypes (often, one suspected, intentionally) .
The Germans wanted everyone to do things their way – but were so sensitive to accusations of bulldozing their preferences through that they were prepared to argue endlessly until they achieved what they thought was a consensus (usually via attrition).
It was hard to get the French to turn up – they thought if they didn’t show then they could carry on doing what the hell they liked, which is what they always did anyway.
The Belgians and Dutch participated like good Europeans but took a delight in being as awkward as they could to the Germans.
The Scandinavians were organised and a little aloof, often taking pleasure in showing how they’d quietly been beavering away and come up with a solution in Stockholm in the time everyone had been holding meetings elsewhere just to talk about doing it.
The British politely endured the protracted debates beloved of the Germans but then would react by then trying to prove them wrong by going out and wasting loads of money by ‘doing something’ in the sake of Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurialism – even if the JFDI attitude always resulted in some pathetic cowboy joke of a solution that was doomed to failure. This played into the hands of the Germans — who ended up winning most decisions just by tenacity and doggedness (perhaps that’s a metaphor for the EU as a whole?).
But it was almost taken for granted that we all conducted our meetings in English. The Germans occasionally talked amongst themselves in German but this had the disadvantage that the Dutch could usually understand them. It’s ironic that, probably more than political or economic union or the Euro, what has bound the countries of Europe closer together at a practical and a commercial level is the ubiquity of the English language, which despite its inconsistencies and irregularities can be understood, even if spoken quite basically.
Proficiency in English is a source of great pride to the northern Europeans, in particular, and being less than fluent was a large career barrier. I noticed that most Germans I met who’d been born after the mid-1970s were exceptionally fluent in English — even speaking with a slight American accent. Dutch and Scandinavians of all ages were completely fluent.
I’m in awe of all the Europeans who speak and write English so beautifully and precisely, although I was always surprised at the amount of English used natively within Europe. It’s quite common to see German billboards or products displaying some English word prominently – like, ‘Cool!’ or ‘Sexy’ – and only have the small print in German.
And, of course, a large proportion of popular entertainment – songs on the radio, films and TV and a lot of books – are either in English or dubbed or translated. In this vital regard Europe looks towards the UK – and the Olympics didn’t do this any harm. In today’s Times (firewalled) there was a story about how the Spanish have fallen in love with all things British to the extent that some middle-class parents speak exclusively to their children in English.
Native speakers, because we don’t have the near necessity of learning English to be able to interact with other Europeans, probably take a lot else for granted in terms of cross-European co-operation. The golf club Farages have no comprehension of how the single market (which even they are not lunatic enough to want to leave) only works because of the standardisations, agreements and protocols that have to be agreed.
For a small island on the edge of Europe, Britain has had an astonishing and incredibly positive effect on the rest of the continent – as is evidenced by the huge numbers of EU citizens who want to take advantage of their right to live here (especially the huge numbers of French in London). And I think this is appreciated by the vast majority of UK voters who don’t see Europe as anything like the issue that Cameron seems to suppose.
(Such is the way democracy works, many Tory MPs in safe seats know the threat to their own longevity comes not from the electorate but the ageing reactionaries who form their constituency selection committees – and does Cameron really think these people are going to be appeased enough by his referendum promise to drop their opposition to his more liberal policies, like gay marriage? Similarly, most British newspapers have no influence outside the UK, so their proprietors certainly favour more power to be ‘repatriated’ to the politicians they are able to lobby for their own interests.)
Because of the undisguised schadenfreude (oops another foreign word) with which the Euro’s troubles have been viewed by the Eurosceptic lobby, there’s no chance of the UK joining monetary union, meaning a de facto two speed Europe is already evolving. I cannot see any constructive reason for Cameron to then bring up the question of Britain doing anything so destructive to its self-interest.
It’s also ironic that the likes of UKIP and the extreme Europhobes tend to be those who go on endlessly, seventy years after the event, spouting about the bulldog spirit of the Second World War in order to justify an isolationist attitude to Europe. When they invoke this country’s ‘finest hour’, don’t they realise that was when Churchill vowed to fight back to make to make Europe a better place? ‘If we can stand up to [Hitler], all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.’ And with the anniversary of the start of the First World War looming next year, the cemeteries in France and Belgium full of British white crosses are testament to this country’s ultimate commitment to Europe – now we’re in the broad, sunlit uplands, that’s something far too important to throw around in party political games.
When I started writing the novel there were certain themes that I thought IÂ was fairly knowledgeable about: pubs, for example — I knew a lot about those. And food. And London geography and the pleasures of the Chilterns. And Germany and Germans. AND the tortures of corporate life as a ‘senior manager in a FTSE-100 company’, as my CV likes to mention (though not the torture part).
(With so many themes, it’s no surprise the novel is on the long side.)
However, I realised the more that I wrote about Kim, the contemporary, urban artist, the more I was relying on supposition and less on experience. I realised that it might be a valid reason for rejection of my novel if I got my depiction of life as an edgy artist horribly wrong (allowing of course for artistic licence — no pun intended — and exaggeration for comedic purposes).
So I started taking I more active interest in things art-related, as previous blog posts have illustrated…at the end of last week I managed to develop that interest to the point where I was standing outside a pub in Shoreditch drinking with a few of the most fÃªted young artists working in this country (although this story will be concluded in the next blog post).
To go back a little, I’d started to go to events like, earlier this year, the London Art Fair at the Business Design Centre in Islington. I wanted to see how art is sold at the sharp, commercial end – and I went on a tour of some of the stands set up by the younger, lesser-known artists in the artprojects area.
It was at the London Art Fair that I signed up as a member of the Art Fund, which is a brilliant scheme for anyone interested in art. It’s philanthropic – your membership fee is used to procure art for the public benefit and the Art Fund awards an annual prize for artists – and you get a magazine. But the main attraction is very good discounts off entrance prices to the best art galleries in the country — in the case of those that are free, like the Tates and National, the discount applies to special exhibitions that have an extra charge.
I’ve made reasonably good use of my membership, although I was sadly too slow off the mark to book for the Hockney and Leonardo exhibitions at the Royal Academy and National Gallery respectively. I made sure, therefore, that I got in early to see the Tate’s Damien Hirst retrospective. So now I’ve seen for myself the sharks (see sneaked photo), sheep, rotting cows head, pills, sliced cows, bling and so on.
I’m not sure what I think about Damien Hirst. I found the exhibition quite entertaining — but that’s possibly because it contained so many works that have become modern icons. There was certainly a progression that reflected his ability to now create art from obscenely expensive materials — the later gold pill cabinets and the diamond encrusted skull ‘For the Love of God’ (which is on display for free in a separate display in the turbine hall).
Perhaps it’s the British animal lover in me but I feel somewhat uneasy about creating fromÂ of the dead bodies of previously living creatures — be it butterflies, sharks or cows — even the flies zapped in real-time after feasting on the decomposing cow’s head or the picture made entirely from black dead flies.
But I guess that’s how the artist might say he wants the viewer to feel — to think about how art can be created from death — especially in the case of the butterfly pictures (see photo) — which, to me, were the most impressive part of the show.
Given Hirst’s controversial reputation and persona perhaps the most illuminating thing that I took away from the exhibition was physical — Gregor Muir’s book Lucky Kunst.
(For those unfamiliar with German, Kunst is the German word for art. I’m not sure what the technical reason is for using Kunst in the title of a book subtitled ‘The Rise and Fall of Young British Art’ beyond the punning homophonic aspect that might seem appropriate for Hirst’s inversion of the artist-in-a-starving-garret stereotype.)
The book has been very useful research for the novel in describing the origins of the artistic colonisation of Shoreditch in the mid 90s — where you were more likely to see a rat in the street than a Pizza Express or Crowne Plaza or pop-up container-shop mall as you might these days — a place where it was apparently easier to buy drugs than a pint of milk (that probably changed when the Tesco Metro opened).
The Art Fund pass got me reduced entry into the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition at Tate Britain, where, because I’d done little research in advance, I was surprised to come face-to-Cubist-face with what was at the time (it was superseded earlier this month by a version of Munch’s The Scream) the most expensive painting ever sold at auction: Picasso’sÂ Nude, Green Leaves and BustÂ — with its suggestions of black bondage straps — which sold for over $100m.
It’s interesting that a Picasso should have sold for so much because it seems to flout one of the basic principles of economics — scarcity value. Even that single Tate exhibition was crammed full of his works — much more so than I realised from the title — I’d wondered if there would be any Picasso’s in there at all or just works inspired by him. From reading the documentary material provided in the exhibition, it’s obvious that Picasso was an extraordinarily very prolific — and fast-working — artist. Compare the near 2,000 paintings that Picasso made with the 15 that it’s thought Leonardo startedÂ (some he never completed).
MyÂ Time OutÂ subscription has been invaluable for listing the shows worth seeing in London and I had to rush to catch the last couple of days of their highly recommendedÂ Jeremy Deller and David Shrigley joint exhibition.
Neither are what the layman would describe as conventional artists. (A layman might argue that Leonardo’s Anatomical drawings from 500 years ago, which I saw at the Queen’s Gallery yesterday,Â show more technical accomplishment.)
I didn’t really ‘get’ Â Shrigley’sÂ Brain ActivityÂ — which seemed to work at the level of Baldrick humour fromÂ BlackadderÂ or Terry Jones’s historical inquests — trying to generate searching questions from positions of faux naivety. Interesting and diverting — but, as a reviewer said, ‘so what’?
By contrast some of Jeremy Deller’s work in ‘Joy in People’ captivated me in a way I can’t fully rationalise.Â Deller is a specialist in performance art — creating events and ‘happenings’ rather than enduring artefacts (like paintings or photographs).
Some of his work I found too pointed and obvious — such as the wreck of an Iraqi car bomb that he towed across the United States. But I found some of his other work connected with me profoundly.
While Deller is a Londoner (a recreation of his teenage suburban bedroom opened the exhibition) he has an attachment to the north, particularly my home city of Manchester — and the ‘otherness’ that Manchester and the north represent. This includes Deller’s homage to ‘Madchester’ and the 90s acid-house culture, such as the Fairey brass band
playing the KLF (Fairey engineering was a well-known employer in the north-west, I remember my uncle’s first job being at Faireys). Â Sadly most of the visitors to the exhibition probably had no clue where the towns on the Procession banner (see photo) were located, nor really cared. It’s probably the first time in years, if ever, that Manchester’s unglamorous satellite boroughs, such as Rochdale, Oldham, Tameside, Bury and Stockport have been celebrated in a London gallery.
Deller’s The Battle of OrgreaveÂ also touched me. He staged a recreation, almost 20 years later, of the infamous conflict in the 1984-5 miners’ strike. The exhibit is a documentary of the event and various artefacts associated with the recreation. As with the snack bar, the unpretentious dignity of the ex-miners and police is disarming and justifies the title of the exhibition of Joy in People. The Battle of Orgreave is also symbolically important from the perspective of the current wreckage of worship and pursuit of global capital that followed Thatcher’s defeat of collectivised labour. I’d argue it was the defining moment when the power of the state was used to literally bludgeon away any impediment to its Faustian pact with stateless global capital heralded by Big Bang in the City the year after the miners were defeated, 1986.
Twenty five years on, with most Western economies running dire deficits largely caused by indebtedness to the countries to which we outsourced our industrial base (principally China), the argument that manufacturing doesn’t matter compared to financial services seems about to be exploded finally in the turmoil that the consequent indebtedness has caused in the Euro zone. (However, the Euro crisis is interesting from my novel’s point-of-view in highlighting the elephant in the Euro that is Germany).
It can be argued that the miners contributed to their own downfall and that some change to the unaccountable unionised self-interest of the 70s was necessary but The Battle of Orgreave demonstratesÂ the amount of spite and violence that was deliberately used to settle political and social class-based scores. I’d argue the polarisation of social and political attitudes that arose out of support of the miners still persists and is at the root of many attitudes today — in the light of what later happened, it’s instructive to remember the sense of celebration in the country when Blair was elected in 1997 — A Joy in People event if ever there was one?Â Nearly thirty years on, the antipathy of much of the cultural establishment to the current government is rooted in the miners’ strike, especially the hostility directed towards Nick Clegg for propping up the hated Tories.
Deller is right to treat Orgreave like a battle in a civil war because its scars are still evident and, while not art in the traditional sense, when his work succeeds it does so in a way that art should — to provoke recognition and resonances within the viewer so that it creates a lasting impression much greater than the physical work itself.
I was writing the novel in the small hours of last Friday night and it seemed apt to drop into the dialogue the German title of one of the two songs the Beatles sang in translation for the German market in their early years. Virtually everyone in Western civilsation and beyond knows about the Beatles’ apprenticeship in Hamburg.
In fact at the end of last year I went to see — and thoroughly enjoyed — the musical Backbeat at the Duke of York’s Theatre on St. Martin’s Lane which is based on the young Beatles experience in Germany. By remarkable co-incidence, Ruta Gedmintas stars in Backbeat — playing the artist Astrid Kirchherr who is credited with being a huge influence on the embryonic Beatles. (It closes at the end of February so I’d recommend anyone to go and see it. I got seats in the second row, which was rather marvellous.)
But it’s probably only Beatles fans that know that the band sang German translations ofÂ She Loves YouÂ andÂ I Want to Hold Your HandÂ — and apparently these recordings are particularly rare as they were made in Paris — the only session the Beatles ever recorded outside the UK.
Co-incidentally, after I’d written the a reference to Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand, the other translation Sie Liebt DichÂ turned up on my phone on shuffle when I was going for a run yesterday. Listening to familiar songs sung in a different language must be a little like the experience of non-native English speakers listening to popular music, which is predominantly sung in English more or less everywhere.
The lyrics to She Loves You/Sie Liebt DichÂ are actually so simple (although effective) that I could understand virtually all of the German translation, even with my limited grasp of the language. (Having spent much of the last 10 years making business trips to Germany, I’m much better at understanding German — from overhearing conversations, watching TV, reading newspapers/billboards — than speaking it myself.) I guess that a familiarity with hearing simple English almost ubiquitously in popular culture must give non-native English speakers much more confidence when learning the language.
I’ve found a couple of German-originated clips of the songs on You Tube.
Sie Liebt Dich should appear below (except if, like me you’re using Chrome when, for some odd reason it fails to show):
I haven’t done a detailed comparative analysis but my initial impression is that Paul McCartney’s vocal is far more prominent on the German version than the English recording of She Loves You. I can well imagine McCartney being much more willing to put himself out to do whatever he could commercially when the Beatles were breaking through whereas Lennon would probably have treated it like an embarrassing joke.
She Loves You is one of the first songs I ever remember. It was released before I was born but I remember playing my parent’s copy as a young child on an old record player — and probably wrecking it too. It’s a paradoxical song. I’d never list it as anywhere close to being one of my favourite Beatles tracks but I always enjoy listening to it a lot more than I thought I would.
The ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ refrain might be putting me off — what was seen as rebellious and daring nearly 50 years ago seem fairly puerile now. But the rest of the song is so densely packed with hooks (harmonies, furious drum fills, the fascinating atonal chord at the end) and played with such energy that it stands as a condensed version of what makes a great pop song — or any commercial work of art. It’s instructive to me with my writing — surely I can write a chapter with characters having dinner in less than 8,000 words if so much can be packed into two and half minutes of music and be all the greater for it?
An argument can be made that the popularity of the Beatles marked the emergence (at least into the mainstream) of art-driven, hedonistic youth culture. See this quotation from the brilliant Ian MacDonald from ‘Revolution in the Head”If it has any message at all, that of Â I Want to Hold Your Hand,Â is of “Let go — feel how good it is”. This implied…a fundamental break with the ChristianÂ bourgeois status quo. Harbouring no conscious subversive attempt, the Beatles, with this record, perpetrated a culturally revolutionary act.’
Ironically, after the feedback session I had with the MMU MA class this evening, I’ll probably end up cutting the section with Komm Gib Me Deine Hand mentioned but I’m sure I can work in the reference somewhere else.
I was in London yesterday around Oxford Circus then went to St.Paul’s and Southwark to have a walk around the settings I’m using for the first few chapters of The Angel — including the Tate Modern again where it was amazing to hear the number of French and German speakers.
Walking across the Millennium Bridge I was impressed again by the height of the internal core of concrete core of the Shard, which I think I heard became the tallest building in London in the last week or so.
Here’s a photo I took from the Millennium Bridge and the scale of the Shard can be seen in comparison with Tower Bridge and One London Bridge (the square building at the foot of the Shard).
The literary agent Carole Blake Â (who I follow on Twitter) tweeted about this interesting article on the Shard’s construction from today’s FT which is currently available for free.
It does present a conundrum for my novel though as when I started it the Shard was a hole in the ground and by the time it’s finished then the Shard will be an unmissable landmark. However, although my novel is set in the present the time elapsed in the plot will be shorter than the time I’ve taken to write it. I suppose it might be a nice little touch at the end to mention the erection of the tall, central shaft (also adding in a bit of the rest of the book’s symbolism there too!).
I also solved a slight problem I had in the early chapters where I have James and Kim around St.Paul’s but doing something that would probably need a bit more privacy than they could find in the piazza around the cathedral. I think I’ve found an ideal replacement location on the way between St.Paul’s and the Viaduct Tavern — Christchurch Greyfriars. This, like the Aegidienkirche in Hanover, is a bombed out shell and has a rose garden where the nave of the church used to be — although it currently is closed off for some sort of refurbishment. It will be a very suitable place for the two of them to sit and I won’t need to be too heavy with symbolism — the location will do it on its own. I read on Wikipedia that the church, before the war, had a huge angel on its spire, which now sits in the entrance of a nearby (non-ruined) church.
It’s also opposite the Boots pharmacy where Kim will later go — my research for this section is pretty anal!
Also to get to Christchurch Greyfriars they will walk through Paternoster Square and there’s quite a curious sculpture there that marks its ancient use as a livestock market. It’s by Elisabeth Frink, a sculptor who liked to specialise in the human male nude form — and perhaps there’s something quite symbolic for the book about that sculpture as there are plenty of sheep where the two will end up. Despite the German sounding name, Frink was English but I read on Wikipedia that she was taught by an Austrian refugee from the Anschluss. Amazing how it all comes together.
Here’s me for various complicated, meandering reasons, writing a novel about a German artist in London, which seems a bit esoteric but, come 2013, almost every visitor to London is going to see a memorable work by a German artist — in the form of a huge blue cock. German sculptor Katherina Fritsch has been chosen to fill the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square for the whole year — see photo below from the Fourth Plinth website.
It seems there’s something of a Zeitgeist at the moment for finding out more about Germany. One of the biggest selling non-fiction books at the moment is Simon Winder’s Germania, which I’ve bought but only dipped into — hopefully I can blog about it when I’ve finished it. In the introduction to the book, he suggests that it’s only now, with the passage of more than sixty years since the last war, that preconceptions and prejudices are being dropped and the rest of the world now realises that, unlike, say, France or Italy, that Germany is relatively little known.
In fact the most read and commented on post on this blog recently has been the one on the BBC4 Germany series where I comment on the Al Murray documentary and the art and walking programmes.
So, bizarrely enough and certainly without any specific intention, I might have stumbled on to some themes in the novel that people are suddenly getting more interested in. I’d better hurry up and finish writing the thing.
Just like buses — you wait for a programme on German art for ages then a whole series comes along on BBC4, which started last night. This should be fertile material for anyone writing about a character who’s a German artist.
Part of the press release for the programme hints at an underlying reason why German culture is less known outside German-speaking countries than it deserves to be. The presenter, Andrew Graham-Dixon said in a press release ‘Following two World Wars, there is a tendency to deny German culture the equal reverence of Italy or France, and this enlightening new series provides a wonderful opportunity to explore a great, yet often neglected, artistic tradition whose influence has been just as profound.’
BBC Four controller Richard Klein added: ‘Germany is beautiful and has a rich and luminous cultural heritage, but it is virtually unknown over here, or simply misunderstood.’
I caught the second half of the programme and recorded it so will return to watch the rest and found that even the section I saw was quite fascinating in terms of explaining the German character. There were plenty of shots of green plains, forests and Alpine meadows which illustrates the German love of the outdoors — despite some very urbanised areas (such as Berlin and the Ruhr) many German cities (like Hanover, Munich and Stuttgart) have large areas of forest or parkland close to their centres.
Whereas the English love of the rural idyll tends to be a romantic aspiration (with suburbs being invested with rural decoration) the Germans are, perhaps, more practical. They might be happy to live in apartments in the city most of the time but many of them love to get out into the countryside in practical terms.
I’ve experienced this several times. I once went for an overnight business meeting at a very rustic lodge hotel in the middle of a forest by a huge lake called the Steinhuder Meer. The manager, who lived in Frankfurt, who organised it always stayed in the middle of the forest rather than in the centre of Hanover, where the office was, about 40km away.
I’ve also been taken on long walks up hills with German colleagues and, in one very memorable event, walked up through an Alpine forest when we stayed in a ski resort in the summer to a ski lodge at the top of a mountain where we were all plied with schnapps and cold cheese and meats — and one of my English colleagues got so drunk she was ill the whole of the next day.
When I workshopped the last extract of the novel people were wondering about Kim’s ‘German-ness’ and I also had some comments about what does she see in James and why on earth would a left-wing urban artist want to go out and live in the countryside. To my mind these two aspects are bound together — because she’s German my theory is that once she gets out into the relative wilderness (Buckinghamshire compared to Hackney and Shoreditch) that some desire to escape back to nature will be triggered. It might not last but, as someone who’s already a bit rootless, it seems a bit more plausible for her to move as a German than perhaps as a native Londoner or English suburbanite.
The back-to-nature theme is continued on BBC4 as part of a wider mini-Germany season. Tomorrow night (1st December) Julia Bradbury starts a German hiking season with a walk along the Rhine — the spectacular valley between Cologne and Frankfurt is spectacularly pretty. ‘The Germans enjoy a relationship with walking that has lasted over 200 years. The exploration of their landscape has inspired music, literature and art, and Romanticism has even helped shape the modern German nation, as Julia discovers.’
Also tomorrow, Al Murray (probably one of the very few Oxford-educated ‘pub landlords’) does one of these documentaries where we’re believed to invest more in the subject because it’s of interest to a celebrity. Given Murray’s alter-ego this series should hopefully be of great interest to my novel (what could be better than the pub landlord going to discover Germany?) — and perhaps shows that there’s maybe a latent interest in discovering about modern German characters?
The BBC website says: ‘Making fun of the Germans has had ‘Pub Landlord’ comedian Al Murray’s audiences laughing in the aisles, but behind the scenes Murray is a serious historian with a fascination for the real Germany.Â In this two-part documentary, Al sets out to discover the truth behind the wartime jokes and banter that still plague all things German. In a breathtaking journey through one of Germany’s coldest winters, he discovers a country of warm and welcoming people and two centuries of stunning arts and culture.Â From Bach to Bauhaus and the Brothers Grimm, Al falls in love with the true historical, natural and cultural beauty of this much-maligned land.’
I had an e-mail from my ex-manager in Germany today. I sent him the first few chapters of ‘The Angel’ to read and he’s told me that he took them on holiday and he really enjoyed them. He’s a pretty fluent English speaker and, as is quite common now in Europe, the artefacts that he largely works with (meetings, presentations, documents) are all in English but there’s still a lot of German spoken between colleagues. The language often marks the boundary between work and social interaction, formality and informality.
So that’s really encouraging — a native German speaking endorsement of the start of the novel — so Kim must be plausible.
He’s also helped me with a bit of German translation. The bit of German at the end of the ‘Linguaphone’ posting wasn’t exactly wrong but it was confusing as it changed the familiarity of the ‘you’ mid-sentence — so it should be ‘Ihr Englisch ist sehr flÃ¼ssig, aber Sie sprechen’ or ‘Dein Englisch ist sehr flÃ¼ssig, aber du sprecht’. And I’ve been given a choice of two phrases for another line: ‘”Kommen Sie aus Deutschland?” or may be better just “Entschuldigung, sprechen Sie deutsch?”‘
An update to the post on ‘Totes Meer’ below. I was in Tesco’s and they’ve started to do a small selection of ‘local’ books. One was a walks in Buckinghamshire guide. I like to flick through these as they usually have at least one walk that passes within about half a mile of where I live — and it reminds me not to take for granted the fact that in a ten minute stroll (or five minute run) I can be in some of the best walking country in England. (And I was brought up within a few miles of the Pennine Way.) A national trail, the Ridgeway, is less than a mile away and I can see Â two long-distance paths (the North Bucks Way and the Midshires Way) out of the front of the house and a local long-distance route (the Aylesbury Ring) out of the back.
Quite often these walking books have nuggets of interesting information interspersed with the directions. I was reading a circular walk in the book with a route that passes very close to me and saw it had a reference to John Nash (the painter of The Cornfield). It said he’d written the ‘Shell Guide to Buckinghamshire’ in 1936 in a village (hamlet really) called Meadle, which is about a mile and a half away, a dead-end off a road in the middle of nowhere that I sometimes run past — the place seems to be dominated by stud farms and stables. (The Shell guides were much more ‘arty’ than normal 1930s tourist guides — those the Nashes did were described as surrealist. Â John Betjeman wrote the guide to Cornwall.)
I did a Google search on Meadle and John Nash and found a useful Chilterns AONB page giving a detailed biography. Nash lived in Meadle from 1922 until 1939, when he again served in the military. The website says ‘the location, on the edge of the Chilterns, provided great inspiration for him. The escarpment with its beechwoods and the farmed landscape with its daily activities became the subject of many of his paintings.’
I then found that another of his most famous works, which is in the Tate Collection, is ‘The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble‘ , painted in 1922. According to Wikipedia this is a classic use of the landscape to represent reflections on the human condition — using a brooding claustrophobia that refers back to the war. I can see Grange Farm from my window and have walked past it several times (it’s on the North Bucks Way).
While ‘The Cornfield’ has an obvious appeal to me because it’s a painting of the region where I live, I find it fascinating that, unknown to me in the years since I bought the print, that the artist could almost have been my neighbour, having chosen to live for 17 years literally down the road.
Also, the work of both the Nash brothers fits incredibly well as a theme to my novel. Quite early in the novel I’ve written something about Kim and her attitude to the second world war. It’s debatable whether a German of that age really thinks about it too much and were that to be the only reference it would probably be read as fairly gratuitous. However, as the Nashes wereÂ artists who painted both world wars and also drew and/or lived in the area where the novel is set and also appreciated its much older, almost spiritual ancestry then the historical aspect could be developed. Â (Also, it’s interesting that the Tate owns most of these picture — shame they don’t seem to be on display — as I’m setting some significant scenes from the novel in The Tate Gallery.)
The process of developing what appears to be a soapy story of people running a pub is actually dredging all kinds of connections out of my subconscious.Â It’s producing a unification of character, setting and theme that’s very specific to me personally.
I’m finding it quite tricky to write a section of ‘The Angel’ in which Kim is in transition between London and the rural countryside. Part of the reason is that she’s currently making a journey alone, which isn’t a great source of dramatic conflict, except if the conflict is played out within her own mind — and the ideas that I want her to grapple with are difficult to convey without becoming a pretentious candidate for pseuds corner in Private Eye.
I’m tempted to bin, or severely edit, what I’ve written but as I’ve ploughed on I discovered some very surprising connections that suggest that certain themes in the novel are coming from deep in my subconscious.
I have Kim standing at a viewpoint and being blown away (almost literally) by the view. This sets off a series of associations as she spots that the view towards a place called Wittenham Clumps is signposted. This is a series of hills near Wallingford in Oxfordshire and my friend Kathy finds it a beautiful, meditative place and has sent me photos. It has the mystical appearance of the many of the chain of ancient locations that lie on the northern slopes of the Chilterns and the Berkshire Downs Â — such as Avebury, Silbury Hill, Barbury Castle, the Uffington White Horse, Whiteleaf Cross, Beacon Hill (near Chequers) and Ivinghoe Beacon. Most of these are linked by the Ridgeway.
Wittenham Clumps was also a location frequently painted by Paul Nash — who is sometimes described as one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. He admired Wittenham Clumps in the same way he revered the standing stones of Avebury which he described as ‘wonderful and disquieting’. Nash’s paintings examine the English landscape in an intuitive, slightly surrealist way that conveys as much about the interior thoughts of the painter as much as the physical landscape. The effect was described by Jonathan Jones in ‘The Guardian’ as being ‘in a distinctive, painted world that is part William Blake, part JRR Tolkien and all England. Red suns rise over chalk hills, grey breakers hit coastal defences. The landscapes of Kent keep recurring, along with unfamiliar views of London…[Nash]Â paint[ed] his dreams, and mix[ed] up homely landscapes with personal myth in a way comparable to DalÃ¬’s mythologising ofÂ Catalonia…his sensibility is as Âknotted as an English oak.’
The quotation above was from a review of an exhibition of Nash’s work in Dulwich earlier this year which was widely reported so I don’t think I really need to stretch artistic licence too much for Kim to have known about Nash and even attended the exhibition. What’s also striking is that, before I found that review, I’d written a description of what Kim sees in the landscape and alluded to both Middle Earth (Brill Hill can be seen from the same view, on which Tolkien based the village of Bree) and the ‘feet in ancient times’ from Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.
I knew that what was also notable about Paul Nash was that he was an artist in both the World Wars. However, I learned a lot more from watching a fascinating programme on BBC2 this week about the art of the second world war. One of Nash’s most famous paintings is ‘The Battle of Britain’ and perhaps his best known work, which is owned by the Tate, but doesn’t appear to be on display, is ‘Totes Meer‘. This is German for ‘Dead Sea’ and is a depiction of a scrapyard near Cowley (also visible — and referred to frequently in ‘Burying Bad News’) full of fighter aircraft wreckage which he paints to look like a moonlit sea.
I’d enjoyed the David Dimbleby landscape art series ‘A Picture of Britain’ a few years ago and bought the accompanying book as it has some reproductions of some beautiful paintings. I liked the painting featured on the cover of the book so much that I bought a canvas print reproduction from the Tate — it’s called ‘The Cornfield’ and is a late afternoon view of an unmechanised harvest just after the first world war in the rolling Chilterns somewhere near Chalfont St.Giles. I’ve had it hanging on the wall of my study all the time I’ve been writing this novel. The artist is John Nash — who I didn’t realise was Paul Nash’s older brother.
The connections are almost spine-tingling: ‘The Cornfield’, Cowley, the Ridgeway, ‘Totes Meer’, ‘Battle of Britain’, Blake, Tolkien — it’s no surprise I’ve ended up writing about a modern-day German artist marvelling at the history of the English landscape.
I wrote the following in the middle of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world â€“ looking out into the sea as our ferry weaves between the courses of various huge container ships and tankers. (Iâ€™d actually typing into a Word document to post later on but I could have blogged fromt here if Iâ€™d been prepared to pay Â£4 for an hourâ€™s wi-fi â€“ bit steep I thought).
I was a very frequent visitor to Europe until the end of the last year, flying on average on a fortnightly basis â€“ mainly Germany but also plenty of trips to Sweden, Spain, France, Portugal, Belgium, Portugal and even Croatia. These trips have tended to be for two or three days and to cities and hotels where English is pretty much the universal language.
Iâ€™ve spent longer in Europe on holiday but, most recently, these trips have been to Gozo (off Malta) where English is an official language and to the Algarve, where, like the Costa del Sol,Â it may as well be. Iâ€™d probably need to go back over ten years to previous long holidays in France to experience anything like the â€˜foreignnessâ€™ of the past week.
Foreignness is a relative term somewhere like Brittany. Itâ€™s stating the obvious to say itâ€™s very easy, even with a barely scraped GCE in French, to drive, shop (especially in their vast hypermarkets), have a meal and do touristy things. Not only is there a lot of standardisation of laws and regulations (traffic, for example) through EU membership but also because all Western European countries are subject to the same sort of globalisation as we suffer in the UK â€“ though perhaps not as extreme â€“ not just the French love of McDonaldâ€™s but all the consumerist brand goods that are now imported from China.
Much popular culture is converging too. I spent most of a Thursday night watching the French version of â€˜Masterchefâ€™ on TF1 â€“ a bit more of an X-Factor style audition with three celebrity judges, including an odd Johnny Depp lookalike, than our shouty version with an artificial bit of suspense over whoâ€™s the last one through. Very useful research though for me as I want to construct a fictional cookery programme in ‘The Angel’ Â in which James was a contestant.
It seems that many of the fundamentals of life in the EU are homogenising â€“ and perhaps this is a theme that I have in the novel — evidently by having a European leading character but maybe exploring this cultural assimilation more subtly by having Kim first move to cosmopolitan, multi-cultural London as a staging post, then breaking through into areas of life that are considered sacredly British (or even English) â€“ like the pub.
Itâ€™s probably the social customs and decisions made on a local level (and perhaps influenced by â€“ relative â€“ unchangeable like the climate) such as architecture that mark the countries out as culturally different â€“ even eating habits are converging â€“ I saw ready meals and pre-prepared salads in the Super U and Carrefours.
And, of course,Â language is still the most striking and difficult cultural factor that makes cultures different. Itâ€™s not too difficult to visit for a week and order a meal â€“ but a far tougher prospect to get to a level where one can communicate on a serious level. I know the length of time itâ€™s taken for a friend of mine whoâ€™s bought a place in Spain to achieve â€˜Aâ€™ level Spanish.
I’m thinking of having Kim get quite frustrated when she realises she has the vocabulary to deal with metropolitan life but she’ll realise in the countryside that she’s back at schoolchild level English in certain fields — although maybe many of the natives won’t know how to describe certain things either.
The second reason why the blog has been quiet is that Iâ€™ve been in France â€“ nearly nine days without any internet access whatsoever, which must be my longest non-on-line period for several years.
We stayed in a gÃ®te on a pig farm, of all places, in the CÃ´tes dâ€™Armor on the north coast of Brittany, fairly near to St. Brieuc. It was a lovely location â€“ the accommodation was quite modern but the farm was a slightly ramshackle collection of buildings and an almost stereotypical evocation of the rustic French rural idyll â€“ vegetables growing in the garden, ducks and geese by a pond, a goat by the farm entrance â€“ and I saw a farmer relieving himself against a courtyard wall on Sunday in full view of our front door.
Not really very near St.Brieuc â€“ about 150 kilometres away and actually in Normandy â€“ is Mont St.Michel. I went there probably over 25 years ago and all I can remember is crowds and an abbey on the top â€“ the sort of sight that Iâ€™ve since thought is probably better seen from about five miles away and anything nearer tends to destroy the experience.
From a distance itâ€™s probably the closest actual modern structure to look anything like the mythical structures of romantic Arthurian legend â€“ the Isle of Avalon. Perhaps this stuck in my mind as Iâ€™ve written a reference to Avalon rising out of the waters in an early chapter of â€˜The Angelâ€™.
On returning after such a long time I had another serendipitous experience. We struggled up the steps to the abbey on the top of the mount just as the ticket office shut at 6pm. If we wanted to see the abbey then we had to come back later as there was a special evening opening starting at 7pm. I couldnâ€™t see why they didnâ€™t keep the abbey open for the duration.
So to kill time we went back down to the base of the mount which, for anyone who doesnâ€™t know the place, is about half a mile of one narrow street lined with hotels, restaurants, crÃªperies, gift shops and anything else designed to part tourists from all over the world from their money (the place was full of Americans and Japanese as well as the normal British, Belgians, Germans and Dutch that tend to visit other places in Normandy and Brittany.)
Standing among these palaces of tat built into largely medieval stone buildings I was perversely reminded of visiting Disneyland (the mount itself looks very like Disneyâ€™s Sleeping Beauty castle from a distance) and theme parks — particularly Legolandâ€™s castle with the dragon rollercoaster.
After buying extortionately priced ice-creams and looking at souvenir rubbish like snowstorms â€“ I actually saw boxes of the stuff being delivered to shops with â€˜Made in Chinaâ€™ in big letters on the side â€“ I was ready for a similar rip-off experience at the abbey.
But I neednâ€™t have worried. Just ahead of us walking into the abbey was a jerky Scandinavian on his own who was photographic everything. As soon as he entered the first big room and then ran out again to grab a photo through the narrow door, which framed a woman playing a harpsichord.
Iâ€™d read something in the Rough Guide about the evening openings having music and â€˜installationsâ€™ but I didnâ€™t realise it was such an elegantly organised event that made superb use of the alternately vast and claustrophobic plain spaces of the abbey. Occasionally artworks and sculptures were arranged along the route â€“ making great use of atmospheric, coloured lighting. See the photo for an example of how a vaulted stone ceiling was lit from beneath and reflected into a pool of still water.
These were interspersed with other musicians â€“ a cellist playing a Bach piece, a flautist beautifully playing Gluckâ€™s â€˜Dance of the Blessed Spiritsâ€™ in a darkened crypt and, in an almost magical touch, as we climbed out of a crypt up a narrow stairway and emerged into the huge space of the abbeyâ€™s nave, the emptiness was filled by the music of a harpist.
To walk through the abbey with the art, music and lights was to luxuriate in the appeal to the senses of art, music, light within the feel and smell of a building that, in parts, dates back nearly a thousand years. It confounded my expectations and was a complete contrast to the touristy clatter below. I read in the guide book that only a third of the hordes even make their way up the mount to the abbeyâ€™s walls â€“ far fewer will have been so rapt by it as I was.
There seemed to be something quite understatedly European about the use of art and classical music â€“ I know my German colleagues tend not to think of opera and classical music as somehow elitist â€“ until fairly recently â€˜Last Night At the Promsâ€™ was broadcast live on German television.Â Iâ€™d like to try and convey some of this non-self-conscious appreciation in The Angel.
I wonder whether today might be an occasion I could use in my novel — pubs should be doing well out of this great weather and the World Cup. 45 minutes to go until England play Germany — that would be a great event to have Kim reflect on English attitudes to the Germans. What would she make of the papers or the massive build up to what’s just a second round game — and exiting it would mean a pretty disastrous World Cup for either side.
I’ve been e-mailing my German friends in the build up — wishing Germany luck but not as much luck as for England. I’m also wearing my new England away strip (the red one) that I’ve worn quite incongruously to a couple of classes at City. I turned up after watching England v Slovenia on Wednesday in the Freemason’s Arms, Covent Garden (where the rules of football were first written down). I was about 6 pints worse for wear and that might have been why my reading rehearsal was rather slow.
I’m also really pushed for time with the end of the month coming up — notably our reading night on Wednesday. I’ve made things worse for myself by volunteering to create a website for the evening — something that took me most of yesterday to do.
Lots of things I need to blog about but haven’t done so far and may not do until the end of the week:
A bit of agent reaction to the first few pages of The Angel
The antidotes I’ve experienced to the angst that has featured in a few recent posts
A write up of Penny Rudge’s visit from a couple of weeks ago (we’ve exchanged a few comments via Facebook in the meantime)
The experience of using this blog as the basis for my end of term commentary assignment
And much more…
Watch this space…but now it’s time for the football. Come on England — and we’re owed something special from The Big Man and Fat Frank.
Just been watching the second half of Eurovision while trying to start writing Chapter Five. I’ve convinced myself that it’s good research for the novel as it shows the pervasiveness of English across Europe — or actually the Eurovision area which stretches as far as Israel and Azerbaijan.
At least three-quarters of the countries sang in English and, so far, every single country has given their votes in English (we’ve not got to France yet). It shows the way that a younger generation of Europeans, possibly those who started secondary education after the fall of the Berlin Wall, have almost appropriated a version of English as theirÂ lingua franca.
I’ve been in a reasonably good position to follow this as I’ve worked for the last eight or so years in a job that has involved frequently meeting colleagues from all over Europe — and travelling pretty extensively. While bearing in mind my own, and that of the British overall, pretty dreadful mastery of language skills (only exceeded by the Americans), I’ve found that English speaking ability is a bit unpredictable in people over around 40 — some very educated people can struggle. However, younger people, at least those I’ve met in a work context, are almost exclusively excellent at spoken English. There’s no hestiation or nervousness — just fluency, albeit often marred to British ears by an American accent.
One reason for this is that many Europeans spend a time living in this country to help their English skills. I’ve been doing a writing course at City Lit in Covent Garden for the last few weeks and fellow course members include a German, an Italian, Â a Dane and a Japanese. The Europeans are so fluent at English that if you were to transcribe the words coming out of their mouths there would be very little difference to a ‘native’ English speaker — perhaps they would be slightly more formally accurate. While the Japanese student has quite a strong accent, she took one of the Londoners to task about her grammar — saying she was trying to learn English and couldn’t understand how the sentences had been constructed.
All this is, of course, is my self-justification for writing much of Kim’s dialogue in fluent English — but I think that’s the most accurate thing to do. I don’t think she’ll feel or behave like a foreigner at all when she’s in London — as London really is such a cosmopolitan city. (Bren Gosling’s novel about an immigrant in London is another example.) Yet, when Kim leaves, she’ll just about cross that almost tangible border between the influence of London and that of rural England. I tend to think of it in terms of motorway junctions — J5 on the M40, J12 of the M4 — but the motorways extend London’s influence out along their corridors. I see The Angel pub being the other side of London to Amersham and Wycombe — and so really in another world culturally. Kim will feel like she’s in another country then, to begin with.
But she’d be celebrating tonight with Germany having won Eurovision in the end. As the (over 30) Executive Supervisor of Eurovision said of the big flash-mob dance — ‘it was so fun’.
I’ve spent quite considerable time over the past week revising the chapter three that I read at last Monday’s workshop. As previously I’ve had lots of really useful comments written on my manuscripts by the other students. It’s also quite difficult and time-consuming to keep track of the changes marked in a dozen or so annotated scripts but I’ve been careful to go through all of the comments, note the parts where there’s obvious consensus and weigh up the different perspectives.
It’s quite difficult as people have different preferences and in more than one place I’ve had someone cross out a sentence that has been ticked or praised by another person. It’s the fourth time I’ve had the feedback now and I’m coming to know various people’s preferences, which unsurprisingly tend to mirror their own writing style (lean and taut in some cases, lyrical and colourful in others, empathetic and intense and so on). Having had a few days to mull it over, I’ve probably found the harshest feedback the most useful. I eliminated about 100 words out of the original 2,600 mainly by deleting adverbs and unnecessary bits of speech, such as ‘not really’. Some of the mistakes that I had in the extract are pretty obvious errors in retrospect. My thirteen year old daughter saw Rick’s corrections and told me off about ‘stared briefly’ as well — ‘you can’t stare briefly’.
I also managed to restructure some of the more troublesome sentences with some help from people’s suggestions. For example, this long sentence now reads better than previously, although I’m still not sure if I have it completely right: ‘As she breathed, her chest pushed forward and the outline of her breasts stretched the previously slack material, jolting James a little as he realised that hidden underneath her sexless clothing was a distinctly female form.’ (I’ve just revised it yet again while posting it here.) This was the passage was that caused the previously-mentioned controversy about James — whether he was outrageously judgemental about Kim’s appearance or just ‘doing what men do’.
While I’ve pruned it quite a bit I’ve also added in about 50 extra words to address other concerns. One was about emphasising the Kim’s German background. I’ve replaced one of James’ slightly lame phrases of approbation with ‘Wunderbar’ (actually the name of a Cadbury’s chocolate bar on sale in Germany). I also had Kim respond to James’ declaration of passion for food’s favours and textures by her saying that it didn’t really apply to German food — all sauerkraut and currywurst. (I’m quite an expert on the sort of food Germans eat, having had countless meals in the works canteen of a DAX-30 listed company and eaten in restaurants all over Germany as well as eaten plenty of beer-soaking-up food in Biergartens and Weinachtmarkts.)
One question I have that I’d be interested in having answered is whether if you’re writing a German noun in an English piece of writing whether you retain the initial capital letter — as in Biergarten.
While revising Chapter Three, I went back to Chapter Two of ‘The Angel just to check for continuity and it’s a good job that I did. Alison marked this over the Easter holidays and perhaps it’s no wonder she commented that the payment of the money for the painting was too long and drawn out in Â Chapter Three: it had already happened in the Chapter Two that she’d read. She must have had at least a sense of deja vu.
Alison and a couple of other people also wanted Kim a little more agitated and stressed. I’m not sure if I’ve achieved that but I wanted to try and give James the effect of disarming other people — being quite good at putting people at their ease, mainly through his ability to not worry too much when he’s making a prick of himself. (I have an inspiration for this in mind — a famous TV presenter whose Tweets I follow and with whom I occasionally converse myself via Twitter.) I’m not sure about whether I’ve tightened up the pace a lot. This was something Alison commented on after hearing it read aloud but others had said it had gone quickly when read somewhere like a plane (good sign perhaps?).
I had quite a strange attitude to workshopping this piece. It was a piece I hoped I’d write past and so have something more filled with action to present to the group. When people were critical of certain aspects I was a bit non-plussed but I’d not had particularly high expectations for it. Perhaps I was hoping to ‘wing it’ a bit and hope that this part didn’t get scrutinised too hard — but found I was being picked up on things I’d tried to avoid thinking about, which was quite uncomfortable but necessary. In the end, I think I’ve got a pretty decent 2,500 now — quite a lot better than before the workshop and something that will better stand on its own rather than be a bit of a dump for setting up plot elements.
I’ve found it pretty difficult to get started again after this — partly events over the Bank Holiday (potatoes crying out to be planted) and the election is an incredible distraction. I’ve been staying up too late after debates and on other nights to take in all the coverage — good research for Burying Bad News, though.
In The Angel my main female character is called Kim. She was called that before I decided to make her a German and I’ve not changed the name yet and I’m not inclined to at the moment. It’s quite an androdgynous name inÂ also being used for men but probably the mostÂ notable current uses are American actresses like KimÂ Cattrall and Kim Basinger — such is theÂ influence of AmericanÂ culture that Kim could probably be aÂ genuine name in Germany (though I’ve not come across many although Wikipedia says Kim Basinger has German and Swedish ancestry). It also has an orientalÂ manifestation as both a first name and surname — think of North Korea.
The name is often shortened from Kimberley, which has a South African association with the town or city of that name, which apparently was named after one of the Lord Kimberleys the derivation of whose name will be discussed below. (Incidentally, the Guardian’s obituary of the fourth Earl of Kimberleyshows him to have been aÂ rather colourful character: ‘Johnny Wodehouse, the maverick, six-times-married fourth Earl of Kimberley, who has died aged 78, was as arrogant in his politics as he was in wasting his considerable inherited fortune on gambling, womanising and alcoholism.’ The current Earl is, by contrast, a computer programmer.Â I’m not sure what it is but there’s something about that I like.Â )
Interestingly, my Kim has a history stretching back about eighteen months. She was in a short story which was reworked into a screenplay forÂ the Open University AdvancedÂ CreativeÂ Writing course and sheÂ cost me marksÂ as previously recounted by making ‘Twat’ her opening line. When I was thinking of The Angel she popped up again as a partly developed urban, ‘edgy’ character.Â I still wasn’t sure why I’d called her Kim, though I had come across a female one of the South African variety in an office situation –Â who I’dÂ heard a few stories about but never properly met (oddly enough I just saw her in the work gym today).
So I’ve been wondering why I’ve persisted with an androgynous, non-Germanic Christian name for a character who has little in common with stars of Hollywood slightly erotic film and TV (unlike Emma who’d clearly love that sort of thing). I realised that it’s blindingly obvious and goes back to the etymogical origins of the name as in Lord Kimberley. ItÂ comes from ancient English and means royal fortress and Kimberley (or Kimblerly) means field of theÂ royal fortress — andÂ they are both derivedÂ from the place name Kimble in Buckinghamshire, which itself was named after one of the most ancient English kings, Cymbeline, of the Shakespeare play and the remains of whose castle are still in evidence in a field in Little Kimble. (In a further twist to the power theme I think I’m right in saying that the land on which Cymbeline’s castle stands is actually part of theÂ nearbyÂ Chequers estate.) I have to say I find something quite transcendent about the immediate vicinity of the castle — often the weather seems to change as you pass. Here’s an interesting ‘fact’ about the castle from a website on the Ridgeway, which passes close, as do both route of theÂ 7,000 year Icknield Way — the most ancient road in Europe — ‘Legend has it that if you runÂ seven times roundÂ Cymbeline’s Castle on the ChequersÂ Estate, the devil will appear’.
And The Angel pub isÂ located in a fictional place that’s not too far away at all from Kimble. In fact The Swan at Great Kimble is one of the pubs which will lend attributes to The Angel. So Kim sticks for me because the name is so intrinsic to the location of the novel. I’d never twigged that before but it seems so obvious in retrospect. Of course, Kim is going to explore the area all around here and draw spiritual and psychic energy for her art. I’ll avoid her running round the castle a full seven times though or my careful plotting will go awry.
I’m working on making it plausibly German — perhaps an Anglicised contraction of her real German names or a conscious multi-culturally inspired identity?
We got given some homework yesterday — to write in one of our characters’ voices about their hometown. Strangely I didn’t leave it until a few hours before the next class to think about starting it. This probably followed on from our discussion about plot where a small group of us considered potential holes in each others’ plots — mine was getting my unlikely protagonists together, Kim and James in ‘The Angel’. I was probably also motivated by my visit to Village Underground (see forthcoming post).
Making Kim a German has let me re-use a lot of my knowledge about Germany — a country I’ve probably visited about once a month between 2001 and 2009, sometimes more frequently. Despite my shameful ability to speak the language I actually know and recognise quite a bit of German. I’ve also met hundreds of Germans and visited more or less every large city in Germany and Austria, with the exception of places like Leipzig and Dresden. So writing about Kim’s hometown was like teasing open the floodgates. I got to the 500 word limit fairly rapidly: Kim’s Hometown .
Incidentally, the Benther Berg is completely real and so is the hotel — I’ve stayed there a couple of times and there’s a photo in existence of me fallen asleep in the bar there worse for wear having consumed Herculean quantities of red wine on the company’s expense account. It can be looked up on German Wikipedia here.