Only Connect

My English teacher in the sixth form introduced me to ‘only connect’ — the famous E.M.Forster quotation — not the addictive BBC4 quiz show with Victoria Coren (although the latter is inspired by the former). The implications of those two words have made a lasting impression on me.

Actually, the quotation (from Howard’s End) is elaborated into a longer phrase that has a more specific literary meaning than the more common interpretations of its first two words: ‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest.’

However, I prefer to apply the phrase to connections in the more general sense — specifically creating or uncovering connections between often surprising subjects, which is what the quiz programme is all about. It’s also how the brain works at the most fundamental level — thoughts being the result of connections between synapses and neurons (yes, I did have to check that on Wikipedia).

Consequently, there’s a large school of thought that suggests creativity and innovation are largely the product of making connections between unlikely ideas — and that the more original the idea the more unusual and hidden is the connection between the two.

Only Connect -- the Miners' Strike with Acid House. Detail from Jeremy Deller's Acid Brass
Only Connect — the Miners’ Strike with Acid House. Detail from Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass

Much narrative is driven by the dissonance (and consequent creation of connections) between two (or more) ostensibly opposing situations or premises — vampires or wizards exist in the modern world, what if historical events had turned out differently, someone new comes to town (especially if it’s an alien or werewolf) and so on. Metaphor and simile, which are ways of making surprising connections, are the wellspring of imaginative writing.

And all love stories are fundamentally about creating of connections between two people — and the more unlikely the better. This is the premise of my novel: two people from very different backgrounds and who thought they wanted very different things happen to meet and they connect — although how intimately and lastingly is for the reader to discover.

The novel also connects the conflicting lifestyles of City financiers and bohemian artists, inner-city London and the bucolic English countryside and the aesthetic pleasures of art with the sensual satisfaction of food.

I also like to think Forster’s maxim works at the subconscious level too — that all the experiences you have and the information you absorb get filed away in your memory somewhere and start to connect and form new ideas without any conscious effort.

This might be why a common piece of writing advice is to put a notepad by the bed to capture the seemingly random pieces of imagination or association that sometimes surface in the transition between sleep and wakefulness. I’ve almost trained myself to slumber into this semi-conscious state when commuting on the train — and I’ve often emailed myself ideas or phrases that seemed worth noting and might have been forgotten otherwise.

It’s not ‘write what you know’  but I’m of the belief that the more experience and information you use to fertilise your mind then the more chance there is of all those neurons and synapses bearing fruit with some connections that are really interesting.

Old London Connects with the New: the City from Deptford
Old London Connects with the New: the City from Deptford

By contrast, I sometimes wonder what the sort of writer who lives like a hermit finds to write about — are they constantly drawing on childhood experiences or perhaps they find enough inspiration from secondary sources?

However, having had a ‘day job’ that’s delivered me into central London for a few years, I’ve tried to take the opportunity to load up my own brain cells. I’ve tried to do something new every day if work time and the weather have allowed. (On a warm summer day I’ve taken advantage of the nearby park and laid out on the grass for half an hour — rationalising I’m letting ideas subconsciously ferment!)

Of course, it’s not necessary to go to London to load up your brain cells but there’s so much (often free) access to huge sources of cultural stimulation that it’s very easy to do so. When the weather’s not been kind enough for sunbathing — oops I mean meditating — then I’ve met up with friends or taken myself off on walks or lunchtime visits to of museums and galleries.

I recently discovered the charming Geffrye museum in Hoxton, which is particularly atmospheric when its living rooms through the ages are decorated for Christmas.  Only last week I viewed the National Gallery’s side-by-side Van Gogh’s Sunflowers exhibition and it cost nothing to do so. (Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass, mentioned above, is also free as part of the Tate Britain’s Walk Through British Art exhibition).

There are also the many special exhibitions held at the various galleries — I visited the Richard Hamilton exhibition at the Tate Modern last week in its first couple of days and before any reviews had been published, which made them all the more interesting when I read them.

I should make particular mention of the brilliant Only in England photographic exhibition in its last few weeks at the Science Museum. It features Tony Ray-Jones’s spontaneous pictures of English eccentricity (I’m desperate to find a print of the Whitstable Bay lovers on the boat trip) along with Martin Parr’s poignant photographs of isolated 1970s Yorkshire communities (actually near Hebden Bridge — not far from where I was brought up).

St. Paul's and the Millennium Bridge
St. Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge

And with two thousand years of recorded history, London itself is full of connections between old and new, especially in the areas around the City and the East-End and docklands — with possibly the best example the fabulous Millennium Bridge creating a spectacular connection between St. Paul’s Cathedral (which occupies a very ancient site) with the Tate Modern building, an icon of post-industrial transformation and one of the largest-scale examples of how artists have taken over what were once resolutely functional and non-decorative buildings and neighbourhoods (see forthcoming post).

While I like the serendipity of walking aimlessly around the city, I’ve also used various books of guided walks to explore areas I’d never routinely visit. Steven Millar’s two volumes of London’s Hidden Walks have been particularly inspiring. I’ve wandered with his books in hand around Soho, St. James’s, Marylebone, Clerkenwell, the City, Temple, Westminster, Chelsea and Covent Garden.

I’ve also explored areas further off the beaten track like Whitechapel, Lambeth and Vauxhall (where I discovered the fascinating enclave around Bonnington Square Garden), Rotherhithe and Deptford (see the spectacular view in the photograph above).

The Cross Bones Graveyard, Southwark
The Cross Bones Graveyard, Southwark

One of the most poignant sites I’ve discovered while walking around London was on the walk around the South Bank and Southwark. The site of the Crossbones Graveyard contains the unmarked graves of 15,000 children and prostitutes — those who for hundreds of years until the mid-nineteenth century weren’t considered worthy of a burial inside the boundaries of the grounds of the Winchester Palace and Southwark Cathedral . The graveyard’s existence was only discovered when the Jubilee Line was constructed in the 1990s. It has now become a shrine for modern day sex workers — with memorial ribbons tied to the gates. It’s still a derelict site owned by London Transport and campaigners are trying to resist development plans and preserve the area as a memorial.

In common with others I’ve found wandering London, it’s a touching and surprising story and will lodge in my mind for a long time. In years to come, might the memory of this walk randomly cross-fertilise with some snatch of conversation, a recalled art exhibition or museum exhibit — and out of my subconscious might emerge some original idea or compelling concept might bubble its way out of my subconscious? Who knows? In any case, it’s great reward in itself to cram all this material in my mind in the first place.

UPDATE 9th March 2014: A photographer I met at The Other Art Fair last year, Maria Konstanse Bruun (who’s from Norway but based in the UK) posted this article on her Facebook page. It’s from the Huffington Post and is a list of the 18 behaviours that apparently mark out creative people from others. I certainly recognise many in myself: daydreaming, observing people, liking solitude, seeking out new experiences (see the above post), losing track of time and, of course, ‘connecting the dots’. It’s well worth a read.

Know What You Write

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

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

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

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

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

Montana Gold
My Montana Gold Cans Ready for Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Out With London’s Lucky Kunsts

When I started writing the novel there were certain themes that I thought I 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 fêted 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.

Damien Hirst's Shark
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - Damien Hirst

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).

A Damien Hirst Butterly Picture
A Damien Hirst Butterly Picture

Perhaps it’s the British animal lover in me but I feel somewhat uneasy about creating from 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.

Lucky Kunst
Lucky Kunst -- Gregor Muir

(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’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust — 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 started (some he never completed).

My Time Out 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 recommended 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, show more technical accomplishment.)

I didn’t really ‘get’  Shrigley’s Brain Activity — which seemed to work at the level of Baldrick humour from Blackadder 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. 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

Deller -- Procession
Jeremy Deller -- Banner from Procession

playing the KLF (Fairey engineering was a well-known employer in the north-west, I remember my uncle’s first job being at Faireys).  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.

The biggest exhibit in the gallery was a working recreation of a greasy-spoon café from Bury indoor market — Valerie’s Snack Bar. Many would question whether this was art at all but I think Deller explores a fundamentally British sense of irony in this work: it’s impossible to accuse an artwork of pretentiousness and intellectual sophistry if you can sit down inside it and be served a nice cup of tea. What bathos — and a northern riposte worthy of Wallace and Grommit.

Deller - Valerie's Snack Bar
Jeremy Deller -- Valerie's Snack Bar in the Heyward Gallery

Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave 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 demonstrates 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? 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.


Google Analytics tells me that there must be a lot of disappointed people who happen to land on some of this blog’s pages. Aside from my ardent and dedicated regular followers people land on the blog by via search terms that generally relate to subject that I’ve tended to mention in passing.

But today I can satisfy a  group of people who are fans of an iconic sight that’s slowly emerging by London Bridge — the Shard (otherwise known as London Bridge Tower).

The previous blog entry of photos of the Shard has had more hits than virtually anything literary (bar the write-ups of talks by agents and editors during the City Novel Writing course).

The Shard From The North Side of London Bridge
The Shard From The North Side of London Bridge -- 5th July 2011

So here’s another fix for those fans of the soon-to-be tallest building in Europe. All are photos I’ve taken while running from Westminster up to the City along the Thames — out on the north bank and back on the South Bank.


Shard from the North Bank of the Thames 5th July 2011
Shard from the North Bank of the Thames 5th July 2011

They’re taken on occasions separated by 20 days — and on initial impressions it doesn’t seem that the Shard has risen much higher over that period — perhaps they’ve all been on holiday? Or maybe it’s because the building is so huge that it’s an effect of its scale.

The Shard from Guess Where -- 25th July 2011
The Shard from Guess Where -- 25th July 2011

Actually, I’ve learned from Wikipedia that the concrete core has reached its ultimate height of 72 storeys and that it’s now the floors for each storey that are being added — at a rate of one a week. Three weeks’ progress can just about be discerned between the photos. (btw It’s not a cropping mistake that there’s so much of the River Thames on the above photo — there’s a little hint of where it’s taken from in the bottom-right corner.)

But why am I putting lots of photos of construction work on a blog that’s (meant to be) about my long and discursive journey towards completing my novel(s) — and, with a bit of luck, beyond that?

But I’d argue that the Shard is just the most prominent example of a theme that runs through The Angel. It emphasises the dynamic, changing environment of London — and, being designed by an Italian and financed with money from the Middle East, it’s also an example of the internationalisation of the city.

I have a character who’s been drawn to London because, compared with anywhere else, she really thinks it’s the place to be. And unlike many weary Britons who believe themselves over-familiar with the city, she’s enthralled by discovering the place and the rapid change that’s happening around her makes it even more enjoyable — there’s lots of tradition but there’s also a lot of re-invention.

It’s difficult to overstate the amount of prominent new building that has taken place in London recently — and how distinctive the majority of the new architecture has been. I happened to come across Kenneth Powell’s book ’21st Century London — The New Architecture’ in Tate Britain last week. It’s a superb book for anyone interested in the development of contemporary London.

The list of structures put up in the last 11 years is almost awe-inspiring – and, being an artist, Kim is going to have an eye for good architecture.

Firstly, there are the obvious but hugely popular Millennium projects, such as the London Eye, the Millennium Bridge and the derided but distinctive dome that has now turned into the O2 arena.

With public transport being a bête noir of Londoners, it’s easy to forget the huge investments in transport infrastructure. I was pleased to see that Powerll agrees with my appreciation of the Jubilee Line extension’s transformation of Westminster tube station, which is like something out of a science fiction film.

Westminster Tube Station
A Whole Series of Blake's 7 Could Have Been Filmed in Westminster Tube Station

Canary Wharf underground station is mind-blowing: it reminds me of the interior of a cathedral more than anything else — such a huge space suffused with natural light. The restoration of the huge canopy of the Barlow train shed over the tracks at St.Pancras station for the high speed rail link has been immensely popular, as has the development of the rest of the station — and there are much improved Thameslink and underground stations (I often used Kings Cross-St. Pancras on the way back from City University).

And there’s more on the way — right next to the Millennium Bridge (on the run I took the photos on), Blackfriars station is being transformed into something that will span both sides of the river. The corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street is also one huge building site (as I saw from the top of a number 24 last week), as is the area round Farringdon (and a few other locations) while Crossrail is being tunnelled. With Thameslink also being improved, London will have a couple of cross-city railways of the type people have always complained are commonplace in, for example, French or German cities. (There’s also the massive Heathrow Terminal 5, which like a few of these projects was derided at first and then eventually appreciated for being a tremendous piece of infrastructure.)

Then there are the marvellous renovations of iconic buildings: the Great Court at the British Museum, the Royal Festival Hall and, of course, most pertinently to my novel, the conversion of Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern.

The office buildings in the City are probably the tallest and most noticeable developments. As well as the Shard, there’s the iconic Gherkin (30 St.Mary Axe), the newly finished Heron Tower, the Pinnacle (under construction in the City, which will be almost as tall as the Shard) and the Broadgate Tower (which looms over Village Underground — although less than originally planned as its height was scaled down).

The City Encroaching On Shoreditch
City Encroaching On Shoreditch

Not all the big office developments are in The City. There’s the colourful Central St.Giles development (those yellow, red and green faced buildings), the Wellcome Trust building in Euston Road (a place I know some of my writerly friends use as a congenial venue to discuss their novels) and buildings I never knew had a great architectural pedigree, such as Palestra, near Southwark tube station, which reminds me a bit of a broken Rubik’s cube.

It’s not all work — there’s plenty of play. Two of the best stadiums in the world have been built in London in the last ten years. There’s the new Wembley Stadium, which is the second-biggest stadium in Europe and probably the best in the world for facilities (and I’ve just been extorted out of £92.50 for two tickets there to watch England vs Holland in a couple of weeks time). The Emirates Stadium shouldn’t be forgotten. I often used to fly over and think it reminded me of a giant Arse — quite appropriate for a club whose name oddly recurs in the names of its staff: a manager called Arsene and a striker named Arshevin.  (I’m a Man Utd fan).

There’s a huge amount of redevelopment in London since 2000  — but there’s even more to come. At the start of the novelKim lives around Homerton in a tall block of flats (on the number 30 route) so she’s also been able to look out on the progress of the biggest transformation of the lot — the 2012 London Olympic park. This is home to some apparently incredibly inventive buildings — but the public’s not allowed near them at the moment. We’ll only be allowed in on the first day of the event itself…

…which begins exactly a year today. London will then be even more the world’s most international city.

And I hope I’ll be able to put my feet up and watch it, which I’ll have to do almost entirely on TV — although I did get a meagre ticket allocation out of the farcical process. Some will not be surprised to know they’re for beach volleyball — my excuse is I was working my way through the alphabet — I was also going for athletics! And in a year’s time I also hope to have long since put the finishing touches to The Angel too.

Fields Inspired by Eric Ravilious

One of my favourite paintings — and one that is very germane to The Angel’s setting is John Nash’s The Cornfield, which I’ve blogged about previously. It’s relatively well-known, providing a motif for David Dimbleby’s BBC series on landscape painting a couple of years ago and can be viewed here on a link to the Tate Britain website.

Clearly the painting captures a specific moment in the agricultural year — the bringing in of the harvest — and as it was painted in 1918 it predates any mechanisation. The Nash painting depicts a line of wheatsheaves (amazingly the word ‘wheatsheaf’ isn’t in my wrist-sapping Oxford Dictionary of English). They’re portrayed almost anthropomorphically as semi-human figures (a little like monks with hassocks tied around their waists) and they look tired, weary and irregular, but still form a semblance of a line, much as one might imagine was the mood of the country at the end of the First World War.

I took the photograph below at 6.30am on the 15th July (St. Swithin’s Day — as immortalised by David Nicholls) on the way to get the train. (This is my bucolic route to the local station, which is wonderful on a July morning but awful on a rainy, muddy January evening). I’d walked the opposite direction the previous night about 6pm, when the grass had been cut but not baled. One point about the reduction in the number of farmers is that when the remaining farmers are busy, then they’re really busy. When the wheat is ready to bring in the combine harvesters work through the night. So it’s not surprising that the cut grass had been baled over the course of the previous evening.

Modern Cornfield?
A 21st Century Cornfield?

Although these bales are of meadow hay and not corn (which meant wheat when Nash painted his picture) I later realised that there was something of a parallel. Rather than sheaves that are designed to be gathered in the arms, these cylindrical bales are so huge they can only be moved by a fork-lift truck (or its tractor equivalent) — there are no more than a dozen of them in the field, which must be a good three or four acres. So my photo, with its long shadows,  is similar in spirit to Nash’s painting but also shows the differences.

I was reminded of Nash because I paid a brief visit today to Tate Britain in Millbank, which is where The Cornfield is on display. I didn’t have time to go into their current Watercolour exhibition but I saw a few reproductions of the pictures elsewhere in the gallery. I was particularly struck by Eric Ravilious’s The Vale of the White Horse, featuring the genuinely ancient prehistoric monument which is just off the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire.

If you were to follow the Ridgeway from the Uffington White Horse north-east for about fifty miles, you’d end up at The Angel (in fact I might use a bit of artistic licence and have the Ridgeway go past the front door, as it does at The Plough at Cadsden). And Kim will be wonderfully excited about the connection between the land and  the art — she’s going to take the Nashes and Revilious as inspiration.

There’s also a profound irony about Kim’s interest in Ravilious — like the Nashes he was a war artist — but unlike them he died in action. He was killed in an air-sea rescue mission in 1942 off Iceland.

Another serendipitous connection is that there is a brewery named after the White Horse.Their beers include two that are well-known to me — Wayland Smithy and, er, Village Idiot.

Art for Art’s Sake?

I’m not sure about Kim’s personal taste in modern art but with her training she’d be sure to be able to hold forth about Cy Twombly, the American painter who died last week, and was the subject of some posts on this blog from around 18 months ago when I first saw some of his work in the Tate Modern. Here’s a link to the Deutsche Welle website report on his death to show his influence in Germany.

Cy Twombly's Work -- From the Telegraph web-site
Cy Twombly's Work -- From the Telegraph web-site

I guess she’d quite admire the scale and audacity of the work as I did — and the vivid colours. Yet work like Twombly’s certainly encourages those who see modern, abstract art of displaying as much technical skill as a child’s painting and of suggesting those who proclaim themselves the arbiters of its undoubted quality are those who would insist that the emperor was fully clothed — as this blog entry on the Telegraph website by Harry Mount makes clear.

Kim will produce mainly abstract works — partly because it will be amusing to see James struggle to make head or tail of what they mean — but she’s be technically trained to a very high standard, something which will hold James in awe of her talent and provide a reason for his attraction to her — which is an engine of the plot. James won’t ‘get’ the likes of Cy Twombly but Kim will try and explain to him why Twomby’s work sells for millions — but perhaps she’ll question why it is that his does but her own doesn’t.

Speaking of silly money paid for art, BBC1 on Sunday featured a programme called‘The World’s Most Expensive Paintings’ in which Alistair Sooke, an art critic, did an Alan Freeman style reverse countdown of the Top Ten. As all were in the tens of millions of dollars bracket and the most expensive — one of the Picassos (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust) — was $135m then it was no surprise that super-rich collectors were the owners of these amazingly valuable artefacts. Sooke’s analysis of the painting, pointing out subtle expressions of eroticism, sadism and the painter’s own hidden initials, was persuasive in asserting its value as a work of art — but $135m?

The painting is currently on display in Tate Modern, having been loaned by its Georgian owner — perhaps I’ve walked past it? The gallery would no doubt try to avoid the vulgarity of drawing attention to the value of the work. However, many of the top ten are hidden in private collections or, according to rumour, may even have been burnt.

The programme raised many of the questions about the relationship between art and money that crop up in The Angel — almost all the art works were produced when the artists were relatively penniless — although the likes of Picasso made money later on his reputation. The artworks are valuable because they are scarce and in demand as much as anything intrinsic about their artistic quality. Often a painting is purchased because it had been part of the previous famous collection — its value being acquired through provenance. There’s an interesting paradox that art, which by definition is created for the intellect or to pleasure the senses, has such a close relationship with money to the extent that at the very high end, art is potentially only appreciated because it’s expensive.

While Kim’s art work doesn’t sell for very much, she’s still chasing the moneyed-rich for what income she does get: the proximity of Shoreditch to the City underlines the symbiotic relationship between the two. James, unlike most City types, actually tries to look at art for its aesthetic, rather than monetary value — and this will be a welcome change for Kim.

The BBC1 programme had a real-life story worthy of any novel about a Picasso, La Rêve, about to be sold for an eight figure sum in dollars by its Las Vegas casino owner, Steve Wynn, who then accidentally stuck his elbow through the canvas, reducing its value by many millions. He said the good thing about the damage was that he did it himself, not anyone else — one wonders what might have happened if it had been a cleaner or security guard.

John Nash in Meadle

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  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.  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 were 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.  (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. It’s producing a unification of character, setting and theme that’s very specific to me personally.

Totes Meer

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  — 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] paint[ed] his dreams, and mix[ed] up homely landscapes with personal myth in a way comparable to Dalì’s mythologising of Catalonia…his sensibility is as ­knotted 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.

Bean Doing Some Research

I’m writing this from ‘The Bean’ a cafe on Rivington Street, Shoreditch. I had to come into London for a meeting with a colleague in the rather different surroundings of the Holiday Inn, Mayfair. He was offering me some careers advice along the way, which was both good and bad, because more or less everything he said convinced me that I’d be more suited to a novelist’s lifestyle although this is not something one can approach a recruitment agent for.

While on the tube to Green Park I had something of a flash of inspiration while reading a review in The Economist of some books about the credit crunch. It’s a little depressing as the recession and financial crisis are already appearing in fiction — which will possibly make my themes a little dated — although the Economist seemed to think it would take a year or two for anything particularly thoughtful or reflective to come out (my inference from the article anyway). That set me thinking of the many interesting parallels between my three themes — money (finance), art and sex. I had one particularly thought that I’m going to think about further but it could have ‘legs’.

I’ve had another look at Village Underground, from the top deck of a bus this time, which is useful as I’ve been furiously writing about Kim’s tenure there which may form the opening chapter of the novel. I have a few different ideas for openings and I’d like to use Alison’s tutorial on Saturday to see what works best. The problem is I have to write them. I was up until past 1am last night and up again writing by 8am.

On the way here I stopped by the Tate Modern. I was hoping to see the Rothko Seagram pictures, which I thought were there, as I watched the Simon Scharma programme on them on DVD a few days ago — more research. However, they appear not to be there and today’s strike by the PRS (or whatever union it is) meant most of the galleries were shut so hordes of foreign school parties were all crammed into Balka’s box instead, which I guess probably gave it the opposite ambiance to that which the artist intended.

Back to the Tate

Had a meeting in London today between Mansion House and Cannon Street that I’d partly arranged in the hope of hitting the pub with friends afterwards and getting well lubricated. This didn’t come to pass but I didn’t waste the trip as I zipped over the river to check a few details out in the Tate Modern.

I wrote a piece for last Saturday’s tutorial by using the Tate website to look up the paintings so I thought I’d better go and see them for real before I revised the piece. Good job I did as I now know better where they’re physically located in the room. They are principally Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’, Warhol’s ‘Marilyn Diptych’ and Rauschenberg’s ‘Almanac’.  I may also use Claeus Oldenburg’s ‘Giant Three Way Plug’ as it didn’t realise it hung in the air or was so big.

I went down and revisited the big box — not as spooky this time as there seemed to be more light and there were more people around — and also checked out the Cy Twombly paintings which I found all to be called Bacchus (untitled) in a collection called Material Gestures. It’s probably the first time I’ve ever ‘got’ a painting which to all intents and purposes looks like someone’s had a breakdown while doing some interior decorating. I can’t find it on the web but there’s a review in the Telegraph that shows a similar work. I’ve now found Twombly’s site. There are two Bacchus paintings at 21 and 22 on this page.

Next door to the Twomblys was something which was, re-assuringly, the sort of pretentious rubbish I’d normally expect. I can’t seem to find it on the website and I was quite interested as there was a warning about the room containing sexually explicit material. Unfortunately it was some old bloke’s home movies of himself stark naked in a mask hitting himself on the head with a boxing glove and smearing himself with paint (I luckily missed the bit where he uses bodily excretions). Not something that I’ll probably use in a novel.

The Shock of the New

It’s going to be quite an intense day on Saturday for a few of us: Rick, Nick and myself have both a reading and a tutorial. The reading is c. 2,250 words and the tutorial extract can be up to 3,000. I slightly exceeded the word limits on both so I’ve got about 5,600 words in for feedback in one way or another — in two different novels, which might land me in trouble.

I really wanted to make a start on ‘The Angel’ and I began by trying to do something clever and writing a scene which, like Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Norman Conquests’, brought together characters from different works and had them interact in scenes which were interchangeable. I will probably still use the scene. It’s when Sally(from ‘Burying Bad News’) wants to bone up on wine. It turns out she knows Kim (from ‘The Angel’) from London and Kim persuades James to put on a wine tasting at ‘The Angel’. Sally brings Jez along and meets Emma and Gordon, Emma’s doctor father who tries to take over the wine tasting duties. Both Sally and Emma get smashed and Sally sees glamorous Emma as someone who can help make her image over and persuades her to accompany her to Bicester Village Designer Outlet to buy some discount brand label clothes cranking up the balance on the credit card she’s just wangled. In the course of this Sally would give Kim the third degree about why she’s left London and come to the sticks to work for an ex-banker. Kim would show Sally the space in the pub that she’s planning to turn into her studio. Quite a nice little scene I thought but it was quite dialogue heavy and didn’t really get into the meat of the story so I thought it might be a bit of a missed opportunity to present that for the tutorial.

Interesting that I referred to Alan Ayckbourn as I’ve long admired his plays — the way he works within a limited scope and is marvellously funny but still exposes the deepest recesses of his characters’ psyches. What I’ve described above is not too dissimilar to one of his plots.

So I decided to put the wine tasting writing on hold and write something different — and I had about two or three days to do it and last night’s class to fit in as well (in addition to work). I had a very firm image in my mind about how I wanted the novel to end and, bearing in mind feedback about how a reunion on the Millennium Bridge was a bit of cliche, I decided to construct an ending to the novel that took the cliche and subverted it.

I worked pretty obsessively on the piece as there’s not much opportunity for ‘face-time’ with the tutors and I wanted to deliberately address a lot of my concerns about the novel in the submitted extract. I got up at 5.30am this morning so I could send it in before midday (I failed by 8 minutes).

I also put my fieldwork research in the Tate Modern to good use by setting almost all the action in the gallery. I don’t know how successful a strategy it will turn out but I had the characters look at painting that were then used to reflect concepts and emotions from the plot. I tried to use paintings that readers would have a good chance of knowing, such as Warhol’s ‘Marilyn Diptych’ and Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’. My reference to the latter wasn’t very subtle but it’s not a subtle painting. I really want to use the Cy Twombly paintings I saw last week but can’t find them on the internet. I’m planning another trip to the Tate next week to check. I also ensured that my semi-mystical experience inside Balka’s huge box was put to good use (see blog posting below). I hope Alison says that this works because, if it does, it could be quite a hook for the novel as I would see it being marketed at the kind of people, like me, who are reasonably educated and open to new ideas but who know very little about certain types of culture (in this case modern art). It works very well with things like Morse and his fixations with Wagner and Mozart.

I’m not sure how the piece hangs together. Because of the word limit (yes I came up against the word limit and had to edit it down even though it was put together quickly) it’s probably more rushed than I’d anticipate in a full length novel. For example, I’m concerned that I’ve telescoped the plot a bit too rapidly into the dialogue so there might be some cliches in there. However, some of the most basic emotions must transcend cliche. If a character says ‘I love you’ or ‘I want you’ is that a cliche? I don’t think so but I still feel like there must be cleverer ways of writing that or something like ‘Be there for me.’

I wanted to write something that had both dialogue and some extended description but I think I would want to hone the diction and rework some of the imagery in a re-draft. However, I wanted to use the extract to bring in and work on some of the themes I would see running through the novel, such as obsession, depression, communication, misunderstanding, ambition, modern art, etc. There’s also themes pubs and urban-rural tension but these aren’t so evident in the extract.

Now I’ve sent it in I’ll probably do something completely different tonight like watching television — I thought the new Rab C. Nesbitt wasn’t bad last week (I watch it with subtitles as I like to read how the dialogue is written) and ‘Bellamy’s People’ was ok last week.

And I’ve got six absorbing chapters from the other class members to read in detail before Saturday.
I’ve read through two or three quickly already but I’ll read them all through, let them stew away in my subconscious for a while, and then annotate them with any detailed comments I might have.

Some Research

I was in London yesterday for work purposes and had two quite contrasting experiences that could be used in research for my novels in progress. I had a meeting with a management consultant at Price Waterhouse Cooper’s famous office at 1 Embankment Place — this is the semi-circular roofed building over Charing Cross station that was featured in the last series of The Apprentice (the toga wearing corporate hospitality task episode) and it’s even recreated in plastic bricks at Legoland. We used a little wood-panelled boardroom with all services and facilities laid on by attentive staff (obviously meant to impress financial movers and shakers — I turned up in jeans and a jumper).

My PWC friend and I did a conference call to Palma de Mallorca where the chap I’m doing some work for is based. He was rather pumped  up on testosterone and threw in phrases like ‘we really want them to drop their pants for this one’.

I had an hour or so to kill before I had to head back so I decided to take the tube to Mansion House and walk across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern — both of which are mentioned in one of my synopses. On some previous occasions I’m ashamed to say the free toilet facilities in the Tate Modern have been more of a draw to me than the artworks. However, I had a more considered look around this time, albeit briefly.

I’d seen Miroslaw Balka’s huge empty container from the outside previously but this time I ventured inside. I even got to the back wall — something that seems quite a challenge when you make the first tentative steps. (Basically the box, which is 13m high by 30m long is completely dark and empty inside.) Although one wall of the container is completely open, surprisingly little light penetrates inside so as you enter and walk straight ahead, it’s really like entering a blank void (apparently one of the allusions the artist wants to make is to the Holocaust). Once you get to the back of the container and turn round you realise you can see reasonably well in the opposite direction (towards the opening) but framed against the light are other visitors to the gallery who you observe facing you and tentatively making their way forward into the void. This is quite clever and the most effective part of the experience.

I took a photo of it on my phone which is a bit blurry but perhaps the more effective for it — see the people by the side for an idea of the scale of the box.


I don’t consider myself a great fan of modern art. I can’t make my mind up whether I need to work harder to understand it or if that’s pointless because it’s all a big con. (I imagine there’s some truth in both positions.) However, I did enjoy three huge paintings by Cy Twombly which were basically red spirals and loops on a big white canvas. I’m a bit annoyed as I forgot their title — something to do with wine I think and they’re quite new. I can imagine some scenes in my novel where the characters go round the gallery and have difficult conversations while they look at particular works and those Twombly paintings would be very good (and not too hard to describe!).

Today I went to corporate IT land — Thames Valley Park in Reading which is home to all sorts of corporations including British Gas, Oracle and Microsoft (who I was visiting). On the way back I decided to do a (very long) detour to Oxford to visit a location I’ve written about in a section of ‘Burying Bad News’ — the Cowley Road. I deliberately took a less direct route so that I could drive right along the length of the road from about 10 miles outside Oxford at Stadhampton. I could see the industrial part of the city looming up from a few miles away and then drove past the Mini factory and right down the road itself through the suburbs and outer city centre in the rush hour traffic ending up at the roundabout with the Angel and Greyhound at the bottom of Magdalen Bridge and then back again (getting stuck in big jams on the ring road).

I’m not sure whether to fictionalise the name of the road. I’ve certainly used artistic licence to make it seedier and grubbier than it actually is — although I noticed a few sex shops and dodgy bars. However, I’ve managed to doublt check that virtually everything I’ve described is really there — particularly a lurid row of takeaways, lots of newsagents and small grocers. In fact I may add in the pawnbrokers and cheque cashing shops…and there are plenty of buses going up and down so that’s true to life as well.