Photographic Memory?

26 Jul

A photographic memory isn’t something I possess. I’ll read a book and shortly afterwards I’ll be able to remember precious little about it – the story arc, perhaps, a character and event or two but not much else. This is a common experience, I think. And alongside all of those books, read and then forgotten, are the ones on the shelf yet to be read, books by favourite writers, waiting to be selected. It’s a happy prospect. I’ve noted here before my love for Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera. I have early collections of short stories by both, one called Laughable Loves, the other Difficult Loves. And I’ve never been able to remember which of them wrote which. I’ve resolved this question, at least, as I’m reading the latter and it’s written by the former. Remember. Calvino – Difficult. Kundera – Laughable… 

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Is it necessary to photograph the covers of these books to validate the reading experience?

In each of the stories in Difficult Loves, Calvino takes a small event and interrogates it, often to some philosophical end or other. In this, it reminds me of Mr Palomar, the novelist’s last work before his early death deprived the world of his genius. 

I was reading ‘The Adventure of a Photographer’ and thinking how remote from our current age it seemed with its references to governesses and wet nurses, when I encountered a passage of remarkable prescience and relevance to our times. You’ll forgive me if I quote from it at length:

You only have to start saying of something: ‘Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!’ and you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore in order really to live you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second, to madness.

Hmm…

It’s as though Calvino had dreamt up Facebook and Instagram in some terrible dystopic vision (blogging too, at least, in its lifestyle guise, I guess…) and perceived their alienating, dumbing-down effect. There he was, living among the Italian elite some seventy years ago, recognising that what we need is to live each moment rather than try endlessly to record it, showing us that the catalogued artifice is not a substitute for existence, that images and captions are no replacement for genuine human experience. 

Who says that books and old things have nothing to teach us? Those who spend too much time using the cameras on their smartphones or scrolling through the resultant output, I suspect. 

Text © PSR 2017 and the heirs to the literary estate of Italo Calvino. The covers of the paperbacks are © Picador and Faber Books. 

Ten Sounds You Miss from Your Homeland, Part Three

14 Jun

Today’s auditory recollections come from PK Read, another fellow blogger and novelist. An American, Paula lives on the French-Swiss border these days. Her WordPress blog can be found here. A poetic writer, her ten sounds are deeply lyrical. And the place in which she grew up sounds as though it would inspire such lyricism. I read a recent manuscript of hers and it was beautifully written and gripped me from the start. Expect to see her novels on the shelf of a library or bookstore some time soon. 

What a good exercise this is! It’s been 30 years since I lived in my homeland – the northern coast of California. And even though I’ve lived other places I loved, when I think of ‘home’ my mind goes straight to that place, a small peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and Tomales Bay in West Marin county, just north of San Francisco. Most of the peninsula is national park land, with small inroads of humanity into an otherwise unlogged wilderness surrounded by water on three sides. So here are my sounds:

The rustling and slow song of tall bay trees in an approaching storm, their trunks rubbing against one another in long notes

My father whistling across the forest to get my attention, to call me to dinner

The quiet snick of a breaking twig as an unseen animal notes my presence on a narrow dirt path

The razor call of a red wing hawk from far above

The distant sound of the ocean on low roar on the opposite side of the ridge

 

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The foghorn from the lighthouse 

The crackle and spit of bay logs on a pit fire

The snap and bubble of meat on the grill

The first bars of a song played on my dad’s guitar

The sound of rain percussing on the wood shingles of the cabin roof above my head, late at night, fire out and belly full, the echoes of a song in my mind

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Thanks for inviting me!

And thank you for taking part, Paula. There’ll be more auditory memories appearing soon… 

All text © PSR and P.K. Read 2017. Images © PSR 2017. 

Ten Sounds You Miss from Your Homeland, Part Two

10 Jun

In a previous post, I wrote about the exiled narrator of my novel-in-progress and the ten sounds he misses from his homeland, “the chatter of the liitraavn in Rezistanzskvaar, the two-stroke clatter of Noorskii-SEATs…” and so on. My friend and fellow writer, Mari Biella, has very kindly taken the time to share the ten sounds she misses from home. Originally from the UK, Mari lives in Italy. You can find her blog here. Mari is the author of the excellent “Loving Imogen” and “The Quickening” And here are her auditory memories…

Disjointed memories, partial recollections, fragments of stories… when I’m writing I frequently find myself using these things as a starting-point, and then embellishing them until, gradually, they begin to take on shape and substance. Many of those memories, now I come to think about it, are either aural in nature or coupled with sounds, like when you hear a song and are instantly transported back to a particular time or place. For instance, and in no particular chronological order…

One. I once lived in a fleapit in the inner city, in a crumbling old building next to a railway line. The trains rattled past day and night, with surprising punctuality, and the house frequently rattled with them. At first it was annoying. Gradually I got used to it, and over time it became a comforting sound: come what may, the railway timetable remained a constant. On summer nights I used to sit outside in the shoebox-sized garden and watch the lit carriages slip by in the darkness. Who were the people on that train? Where had they been, and where were they going? What were their stories? Did they guess that someone was sitting out there in the shadows watching them?

Two. Trains were just one of the many and varied sounds that accompanied my life in that place. Every quarter of an hour, day and night, a clock in the nearby civic centre chimed. When all was well and life was happy it sounded like the reassuring voice of a friend. On long, restless nights when I couldn’t sleep, however, it seemed to take on a mocking air, contrasting the relentless passage of time with the strange feeling of stasis that accompanies sleeplessness. I sometimes wondered how many other insomniacs were out there listening to it and feeling the same.

Three. It was an eccentric, colourful place, that area, inhabited by a rich blend of people. Waking early in the morning, I frequently heard a woman on the street below calling “Lena! Lena!” Peering out between the curtains, I would see her standing on the pavement, staring up at an upper window of the house next door. Sometimes Lena came to the window and whispered something back; sometimes she didn’t. I’ve always wondered about the purpose of these early morning visits. I’ve also wondered why, since mobile phones were ubiquitous by this time, the visitor in question didn’t just call or message the mysterious Lena.

Four. One of the advantages of the inner city is that everything you reasonably need is close by. I lived within a stone’s throw of a major sporting venue, and on Saturday afternoons when there was a match or game I would frequently lean out of my window and listen to the distant roar of the crowd. It was such a joyous sound, so full of excitement and exuberance, that it made me smile just to hear it.

Five. We were fans of silly accents in my family. We’d frequently put on exaggerated Welsh accents, or – when we contemplated life across the Severn river – lapse into a daft West Country drawl. We tried our hands at most British regional accents, as well as RP. References to romantic love were frequently made in an impassioned French accent. We attempted American, Mexican, German, Russian and Swedish accents, with varying levels of success.

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Six. There have been many times in my life when I haven’t owned a TV. In addition to an endless stream of letters from the TV licensing authority, this entailed relying on the radio for news. I frequently listened to Radio 4, and was enchanted by the Shipping Forecast. The repetition of the sea areas was almost hypnotic, and produced all kinds of images in my mind: fog, fishing vessels, gale force winds, immense waves crashing against rocks. Carol Ann Duffy commemorated the Shipping Forecast in her poem Prayer, and sometimes it really did sound like a strange liturgy.

Seven. I’m an unabashed landlubber, but the sea fascinates me. In Britain, of course, you’re surrounded by the stuff, and – like many British people – I never lived very far away from the coast. I used to go there quite often, sometimes for no other reason than to listen to the wind and the waves. I particularly loved the cry of the seagulls. Sometimes their call seemed to embody the intoxicating freedom of wild, wide open spaces; at other times, it sounded melancholy, almost heartbroken.

Eight. I miss the sound of the rain and wind lashing against the windowpane on stormy nights. I always thought it was very romantic, very Wuthering Heights-esque. Italian weather has a varied repertoire of its own, of course, but it doesn’t seem to extend to that particular combination of wind and rain – “horizontal rain”, as we used to call it.

Nine. I miss the sound of the English language in general; I particularly miss it as spoken by the natives of the city where I lived. “Dark” was pronounced as “dairk”, “park” as “pairk”. “I live in Cardiff” became “I lives in Cardiff”. Expressions of opinion were often prefaced with “not gonna lie to you” (“Not gonna lie to you, but I don’t like coffee that much”) or softened with “not being funny” (“Not being funny, but you’ve put on some timber since I saw you last.”) It was customary, when getting off a bus, to take your leave with a cheery “Thanks, drive!”

Ten. The last, much-missed sound is not peculiar to Britain, still less South Wales. It is, simply, the sound of a city. I live on the edge of the countryside now and, though I like it here, I do sometimes miss the clamour of the urban environment. I began this post by writing about how many of my stories are born of other, incomplete stories. In a city, surrounded by humanity, you are surrounded by many such fragments, and I sometimes feel the lack of them.

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Thanks to Mari for sharing these with me. The first of her auditory memories turns out to be similar to one of my narrator’s.

My bedsitter is right at the top of the building on the third floor, where the rooms are smallest and the rents the lowest.  It’s accessed via a side door, leading to the servant’s staircase…  At night, I’m lulled to sleep by the sound of trains pulling into the central station about a kilometre away from here, their diesels thrumming and brakes screeching.  The din might keep another person awake.  I can’t sleep without it.  I often wonder if one of them might be mine.  And when I’m missing my home country, I burn the pine-scented incense cones to remind me…

There’ll be more from the sound archives of remembrance in a future post… 

Text © PSR and Mari Biella 2017, images © PSR 2017

Integration: its beauty, its ugliness

6 Jun

The world becomes ever more integrated. In many ways, to my mind, it’s a beautiful thing. I’ve been reminded of this phenomenon over the last week. My Colombian wife and I were in France, listening to Jose Gonzalez, a Swedish-Argentinian who sings in English. I read novels by an Austrian, a Frenchman and an American and began one by a Norwegian. We’d driven down via Belgium from the Netherlands where we’d been staying with my wife’s Colombian friend and her Dutch husband. Along the way we passed lorries coming from every corner of the EU – Romania, Lithuania, Portugal, Italy… How sad that Little England has begun to turn its back on the world. Ah, well… And as we travelled back to England, I began to hear news of the latest terror attack, one of the uglier aspects of our global society, perpetrated by individuals with their roots in Pakistan, Morocco and Libya. These events will only end when we’ve truly begun to understand one another and to embrace our differences. 

Below are some of the sights I encountered along the way. 

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All text and images © PSR 2017

Ten Sounds You Miss from Your Hometown, Part One

23 May

My vast work-in-progress moves ever nearer to completion. The narrator is living in exile. He has been thinking about the sounds he misses from his home country.

Here are the sounds I miss the most: the chatter of the liitraavn in Rezistanzskvaar, the two-stroke clatter of Noorskii-SEATs, the jingling of the signals at pedestrian crossings, the chiming of the bells in Klokksskvaar, the breaking of waves on the Valtikkzii shore, the clunking of the otiis-mekanismis in the Berkmanis department store, the whine of the locomotives’ electromechanical motors, the four-note fugue of the train’s public address system, Tiia’s voice and those of my family, Jovaa and Valeriia, the sound of my own language, its cadence and intonations… 

It got me thinking about the exiles I know – and there are quite a few of them – and which sounds they miss the most, or vice-versa, those they don’t. 

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So I asked my wife, the Colombian illustrator, Catalina Carvajal. It seemed the obvious place to start. And this is what she told me. 

Her grandmother’s voice

Aeroplanes flying low overhead on approach to the airport

The prerecorded voice of the tamales-vendor, advertising his wares

The whistle of a mobile sweet-potato oven

Comforting conversation coming from the TV downstairs at her mother’s house in Bogota

The marimbas of street musicians

The sound of departing underground trains on the Mexico City metro

Her friends babbling in the background at a dinner party

The noise of the crowds in downtown Mexico City

The clattering plates and chattering clientele of the cantinas 

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In the coming weeks, we’ll be hearing from other exiles about the sounds they miss.

All text and images © PSR 2017

In Manchester

13 May

In Manchester. It’s a beautiful piece of perfect pop by the band, Wire. Here’s a link to it on YouTube. It’s also where I was, last weekend. In all the travelling I’ve undertaken in recent times, I haven’t explored my own country much. Last weekend, work took me to England’s northwest and a return to the city of Manchester and its university. 

I had a little time to re-acquaint myself with the city centre. Victorian Gothick abounds. The Museum, the cathedral, the University, the City Hall… 

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My accommodation was nothing short of astonishing. I stayed at the former Refuge Assurance Building, a marvel of redbrick and Burmantoft tiles, marble and brass. It demonstrates a commitment to the aesthetic that we rarely encounter now, a testament to lost crafts and foundries. My little not-so-smart phone isn’t up to the job of reflecting the architectural splendour of the building, but it did its best. 

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 What an amazing city… It just goes to show that England isn’t just about London, as some people seem to believe. If it weren’t for the political climate here – it’s even worse than the meteorological one – I could almost fall in love with my country again. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Through the Window

11 Apr

Except when he turns his gaze inward, the writer is always looking through the window, in a literal or metaphorical sense. Certainly, that’s what I’m doing with my current project. I stand in the corridor of a train, looking through the windows of the compartments, examining the lives of the passengers. Or I adopt their perspective, looking out at the world from their seats.

When I’m not working from home, I have a favourite place to sit and write. Fuelled by coffee, I sit upstairs in the bar and type. From time to time, I look out of the window at the street below and observe the dramas being played out there. It’s the writer’s job to take the fragments he sees and imagine them into a whole. 

That theatre comprises a number of elements. The backdrop features a church tower, a Georgian terrace and a car park. On stage are a motorbike stand, a few parking spaces, a dilapidated telephone box and a concrete bench. There’s a wall dividing the car park from the foreground, over which actors may peer. In front of all of this is the performance space. Old men sit on the bench and smoke. People wait on the corner, examining their phones. Motorcyclists come and go. Minor villains arrive in BMWs, their heads shaven and white shirts pristine. The telephone box is the exclusive province of the derelicts and drug-users. 

This is what I saw yesterday. A woman and her two sons entered stage right. They waited on the corner in the shade of the tall tree. After a while, a man and a small girl approached them, hand-in-hand from stage left. The family had divided while its members visited different shops, and now father and daughter were returning. But something wasn’t right. The girl had become inconsolable. The man sought to comfort her. The boys kicked indifferently at the dry earth around the tree, chewing on confectionery. This will be their education. At last, the man turned to go. The child was still crying. He walked off alone. I observed the look on his face as he headed for the wings. Ah, yes. And I remember. I remember exactly how that feels. 

This scene, played out time and again on the contemporary stage, leaves no one fulfilled. I can only tell you what I have learnt. It’s not much. We have to remember to be kind to one another, to set aside our petty grievances, not to put our own desires before all else. We need to think of the small cast with whom we share the stage, to treat them as real people. Our common humanity is all we have. 

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I shan’t be looking at that view for much longer. The bar is closing and its future is uncertain. No doubt, I’ll find a new window, new street dramas to observe.  

All text and images © PSR 2017