Archive | September, 2013

A Sense of Place

27 Sep

A sense of place – it’s an important thing in life. In a few weeks’ time, I shall be heading for my writing den. The landscape of Brittany, and the specific topography of the tiny hamlet in which I live for two months of the year, have taken on great significance for me. My tiny house with its metre-thick granite walls has been a constant in my life for more than a decade while much else has proved transitory. My heart still races every time that I return to it.

My writer friend, Mari Biella wrote recently about the writing of Carson McCullers and how it brought alive for her the American Deep South. I’ve also been reading some atmospheric books of late. The novels of Roy Jacobsen and Per Peterson are remarkable in their evocation of particular places, at a precise moment in time. And I’ve just finished reading a novel by the Swedish poet, Bodil Malmstem, who also writes beautifully about landscape.

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The enchanting Breton coast

It strikes me that a sense of place is one of the essential elements of a novel, whether a real space or an imagined one. Some writers are much better at suggesting this than others. My writer friend, J Huw Evans and I have concluded that there’s no such things as a perfect novel, a book that gets all of the elements absolutely right. In popular fiction, story and action tend to be everything and many writers eschew description of any kind, dismissing it as ‘purple prose’. While I find that it helps if a story is engaging, when I read I’m looking for elegant prose and imagery, fully-realised characters and the evocation of place. I’d take place over pace, every time.

Many of the writers whom I most admire are adept at this aspect of their craft – Graham Greene, Georges Perec, Tove Jansson, W G Sebald… The imagined cities in Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole and Jan Morris’s Hav are creations of the sort to which I aspire in my own writing. It requires subtlety and skill to envision fully the setting for a novel and to express it such that vivid pictures are generated in the imagination of the reader. I find the work of these authors an inspiration in this regard.

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Landscapes of the imagination

The other day, I was thinking about the various settings that I’ve used in my own books. My first three attempts – all of which I’ve long since written off – were set in fictional English towns and villages. The setting for my novella, The Great English Novel is somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but still recognisably in England. A second novella, Norwegian Rock, is unsurprisingly set in Norway, in an imaginary town and a nearby lighthouse. It was back to the East of England for my war novel, “Mayflies” and its part-written sequel, then off to an imaginary European state for my other work-in-progress (there’ll be extracts from all of these in my forthcoming sampler, Jamboree Bag). I’ve worked hard on the sense of place in these books, striving to catch the essence of a barren fenland backwater, an airbase on a windswept heath or a Hanseatic port on the shores of the Baltic. How far I’ve succeeded is not for me to judge.

The extract that follows is taken from a work that I eventually abandoned.

Little Friesland is bisected by the Great East Road, a seemingly endless stretch of single carriageway, reminiscent of one of those freeways etched into the Arizona desert. The route connects one insignificant provincial centre with another, a frozen river of concrete passing through a procession of squat and squalid settlements: Fockinghall, Stumpney Dyke, Gullsborough, Dudney Wick, Porkington, Dedney End… For all that, it remains the only road of any size linking the region to the outside world. In places this great highway is deserted, at others it becomes congested by a stream of slow moving traffic: trails of caravans – heading westward on vacation, travelling eastbound on return – a vast array of agricultural vehicles, ancient contraptions that appear to have come from collective farms or Flanders trenches, futuristic devices resembling those used for exploration on the surface on other planets, convoys of articulated lorries blowing clouds of black smoke into the air, bringing in manufactures from the continent – Akkerman, Van Daalen, De Kok – and taking out rape-seed and turkeys.  Though passenger ferries may no longer sail out of Great Glumouth, its cargo operations are busier than ever.

For mile upon end it runs parallel to some festering stretch of canal, only for one or the other to diverge suddenly at an unlikely angle. The visitor may find himself disconcerted, driving alongside the steep banks that drop down towards those inky waters. The road holds further dangers, the hidden dips and deceptive bends out of which vehicles unexpectedly materialize, leaving the speeding motorist without refuge as he seeks to pass a crawling convoy of caravans and beet lorries. Elsewhere, the road runs in tandem with Little Friesland’s only remaining railway line, and for a while the juggernaut and freight train might appear to be in direct competition, racing each other across the featureless plains. The combatants seem to be playing out the final frames of a desperate chase sequence, trading blows in some pointless yet lethal game. The wheezing diesel locomotive heads off the rig at a level crossing and brings it screeching to a halt. The truck builds up a head of steam, thunders across a bridge and recaptures the lead once more. The battle ends as abruptly as it began, when one of the belligerents apparently tires of the fight, forking off at ninety degrees before vanishing towards the vast horizon in a storm of dust and soot.

All text and images © PSR 2013

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A Reading Diary

20 Sep

An ex of mine was a librarian (ex-libris, then?) and an avid reader. She consumed books so prodigiously that she had to keep a reading diary just to remind herself which books she’d read and which she hadn’t. It was from her that I got the idea of keeping a reading diary of my own. I began it for the same reasons and so that I’d be able to look back at a map of my reading journey across the years. Some pages are filled with joyous reading discoveries. Others find me resorting to the tried and tested.

The diary goes all the way back to 1996, charting seventeen years of my reading life. I’ve kept it faithfully, a page or two per year, ever since. Among the novels read for reasons of pure indulgence we find stories read aloud to my children, books read for research purposes and works by my writing friends (the last entry is for the manuscript of an excellent novella by Mari Biella).

I wish that I’d begun a diary long before, but there it is.

Postcards from destinations unknown. Who can say where our reading journeys may lead us?

The entries reflect the turbulent times through which I’ve lived, a decade and a half shifting between periods of torpor and turmoil. Births and deaths, moving between nine jobs and four different counties, people drifting in and out of my life like wraiths… man, it’s been anything but uneventful. Life might be hard at times, but at least when my time’s up, I’ll know that it’s been lived. When work or relationships or other matters have proved challenging, my reading diary shows it. I’ve noted here before that I tend to read between fifteen and twenty books a year. So when a page has just a handful of entries on it, you can tell that the dark days were in the ascendancy. In two consecutive entries, the page entries total seven and ten. In another there are just four. And one year has a single entry… The total was fourteen last year but this year I’ve already read eighteen. It may yet prove to be a good year, reading-wise, at least.

I also wish that I could get into the habit of writing a little about the books that I’ve read. I did write down my impressions in the first reading group that I joined. Here’s an excerpt from what I had to say about Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann:

The Writing: Having read sf/fantasy in my youth, I have problems with the tone

Original? I was reminded of all kinds of things here – Tolkien, Pratchett, Burgess, Barberella… Perhaps an original piece of bricolage? I’m convinced she must have read Warner (The Aerodrome) & Desani

How good is it? To me, not as good as The Magic Toyshop which formed a more coherent whole. Pretentious, pseudo-philosophising – like, A.E.Van Vogt!

I made some great friends – my son’s godfathers among them – but I can never remain in such groups. I simply can’t allow twelve of the books that I read in a year to be determined for me by others. My time for reading is too short. In any case, I’m not much of a joiner-in. That must be the reason why I’m the sole member of the literary movement, the Woof Polite.

Citizens of the Woof Polite, you have everything to gain by your chains…

2010 was a strange year for me and I made a terrible mistake career-wise. But it was interesting from a reading point of view. Below are my entries for that year. There are a couple of re-reads and the manuscript of a friend’s novel, random finds and recommendations, books that I hadn’t read by favourite authors and a clutch of titles by the matchless Georges Perec.

  1. The Hot Dragon by J Huw Evans
  2. The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson
  3. The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills
  4. My Golden Trades by Ivan Klíma
  5. Lancaster Down! by Stephen Darlow
  6. Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec
  7. W, or the Memory of Childhood by Georges Perec
  8. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  9. Travelling Light by Tove Jansson
  10. The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
  11. The Emigrants by W G Sebald
  12. Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
  13. Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans by Luis Fernando Verissimo
  14. Gold by Dan Rhodes
  15. My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey
  16. Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes
  17. All the Names by José Pessoa
  18. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
  19. Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
  20. Things: A Story of the Sixties by Georges Perec

Warning: exercise extreme caution when trying out these titles at home – your sanity may be at risk.

All text and images © PSR 2013

Ceasing to Write

13 Sep

Ceasing to write. Not just putting down your pen to make another pot of coffee, prepare tea or go to bed, but ceasing to write altogether. Kicking the habit. No more stories, no more books, nothing. Starting your life afresh with a blank page. Now there’s a thought, isn’t it?

I don’t hold much store by literary prizes, though I’ll concede that the Nobel committee generally gets it right. I’ve heard it said that all writers are dismissive of prizes until they’ve won one. Since my fiction hasn’t even been published yet, I think that gives me all the more reason to be sceptical. For all that, I’m always interested to see who’s on the Man Booker Prize short list. This year, for the second time, Jim Crace is among the chosen six. In the article that I read about the contenders, I was intrigued to learn that Crace has said that Harvest, the novel for which he’s been nominated, might well be his last. The last time that I encountered anything of the sort was the very sad case of Iain Banks, who was terminally ill with cancer. At this point, I have to confess that I’ve never read anything by Crace. But still I wanted to know why an author might stop writing. And besides, he was born in Hertfordshire, the same small English county as Graham Greene (and the author of this blog, come to that). I was obliged to investigate.

So I looked into it. He made the statement in an interview with The Independent newspaper back in 2010 (link here). He’d written twelve novels and thought that was quite enough. He felt that writers often start to become bitter if they carry on writing into old age (Crace is now 67) and weaken their canons. I wonder how true this is. Certainly, the late work of many writers pales in comparison to their earlier compositions. I can think of plenty of novels that refute the theory, though. William Golding was 78 when his great trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth was published. I’ve just finished reading Super-Cannes by J G Ballard. The author was 70 when that was published and it stands up pretty well, I’d say. Michael Frayn continues to write at the age of 79, his intellectual and creative powers apparently undiminished.

There was a second point that caught my interest in the interview. To paraphrase, Crace stated that only one in a hundred writers ever gets his or her work published, and of those perhaps one in a hundred makes a living from it. Since I’ve had my non-fiction published, I suppose that I just about fall into the latter category. I suspect that he is being a little optimistic about the odds in both cases, though. One in a thousand is probably closer to it. I’ve written about this in a previous post. It’s hardly an encouraging statistic.

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How another 50,000 words from PSR’s keyboard might look encompassed in a book jacket

Do these odds mean that the unpublished writer ought to jack it all in, then? I’ve occasionally played with the idea of what it might feel like if I no longer wrote. I even went as far as remarking to a few people that perhaps after I’d finished my war novel I might stop writing. Suffice it to say, it didn’t happen. Instead I launched straight into writing 15,000 words of one project and then 55,000 words of another. Whether or not I’d like to stop, it would seem that I’m unable. I keep writing because that’s what I’ve always done. Until I’ve written something that I feel I can’t better, I’ll keep going. And the ideas just seem to keep on flowing…

If you’re a writer, have you ever considered giving it up? After all, just think of all that time you’d free up for other pursuits. What is it that turns certain human beings into compulsive writers? Would it be good to be free like Jim Crace? Does his bold pronouncement merit his winning the prize in its own right? What do you think?

All words and image © PSR 2013

Summer’s Almost Gone…

3 Sep

‘Summer’s Almost Gone’ is a song by the hugely influential, 1960s American rock band, The Doors.  It’s taken from their third album, Waiting for the Sun. The song captures perfectly that melancholic sense of golden days coming to an end that one experiences when the harvest has been gathered in and the sun is hanging lower in the sky. That’s the feeling I have right now.

Writing didn’t really happen for me this summer. I began with great intentions. I was going to revise my war novel in the light of readers’ comments. I’ve only managed a few minor revisions. I was going to break the back of my current work-in-progress. I wrote just a few thousand words more. Such is life. And now it’s back to work and the nights are drawing in. Up until Christmas, I’ve lost the day off a week that has yielded my most productive writing. I’m not now expecting to make much progress with the WIP until the New Year.

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A wintry view lies beyond my East Anglian writing desk…

Through the Writing pages of this blog, I’ve attempted to give the interested reader a flavour of my writing. I mentioned, a couple of posts ago, that I was thinking about putting out a sampler of my work to date, to be called Jamboree Bag. This would provide the reader with the opportunity to explore in greater depth my writing over the last two decades. I’m intending to include a couple of complete short stories, extracts from novels and novellas, some non-fiction pieces and a few old poems and lyrics. The plan is to make the sampler available both as an e-book and as a cheaply-priced paperback. It was the one project upon which I did make progress this summer. I’ve completed a mock-up of the book and shortly, I shall be asking fellow writers – some of whom are readers of this blog – for their views on which extracts I should include and for tips about placement, ISBNs and other publishing issues.

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Summer’s almost gone…

One type of writing that I’m planning to include in my sampler is music journalism. On a few occasions, I had the privilege of writing the lead feature for Record Collector magazine (before the editor and deputy editor, both of whom liked my writing, left the magazine). I particularly enjoyed putting together a feature on The Doors. Their first two albums were marvels of invention and creativity. I noted that the first was ‘a stunning début, arguably one that will never be bettered’ and that the second had been ‘groaning under the weight of expectation’ but was ‘miraculously good under the circumstances’. By their third album, The Doors had begun running out of steam. Here’s what I had to say about ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’:

Krieger’s mournful, lilting guitar, Morrison’s simple, nostalgic lyric – this ballad approaches perfection. Like Keats before him in ‘Ode To Autumn’, you get the impression of a young man in thrall to his own mortality. This is everything that Terry Jack’s ‘Seasons In The Sun’ tried to be but wasn’t, straddling the thin line between sensitivity and sentimentality, between elegy and schmaltz. Though [it’s] wonderfully poignant, it’s merely the final remnant from that great store of songs they’d written before signing to Elektra.

As a writer, you can relate to this. It’s the fear that you’ve used up your stock of good ideas, that your best writing is behind you, that summer’s almost gone…

So as not to end in a minor key, here’s a further extract from that article.

The Beneficiaries of the Morrison Estate

Jim Morrison was the original rock-god, though he would prove sadly mortal. His image was cleverly concocted out of a series of iconic objects and actions. Here we look at how the Morrison legacy has been distributed.

The leather trousers

Shared throughout the ‘80s by Julian Cope (Monday to Thursday) and Michael Hutchence (Friday to Sunday).

The wavy mane

Another ‘80s time-share, this time between Mike Scott and Michael Hutchence (again).

The outsized ego

A gift to all rock stars everywhere.

The drink and drug habit

Ditto.

The bad poetry

The Morrison Prize is open to Sixth Form boys across the USA and UK.

The exhibitionist tendencies

Last seen in the possession of a man in a shabby raincoat on Clapham Common.

The obsession with all things Native American

This has changed hands several times. Originally left to Redbone, it was borrowed by Adam Ant for a few weeks in 1980, before being misplaced by Ian Astbury somewhere in Bradford in the late ‘80s.

The full beard

Demis Roussos.

The designer stubble

George Michael. Or was it the exhibitionist tendencies?

 All text and images © PSR 2013

except extracts from The Doors: an Open and Shut Case? © Record Collector 2002