Progress

Happy New Year.

I don’t tend to write much over Christmas; I always find it a time for generating new ideas or doing the writing-tasks-that-aren’t-writing, like submissions or editing or planning. And looking back at old stuff to see if it can be resurrected (a fun task, but the answer is always “no”).

Consequently, the Robin Hood novel has been submitted to an agency, a (new) short story entered for a competition. Most likely nothing will come of either, but at least it feels like I’m doing something.

I’m also going to set myself a number of targets every month in 2018. This can include a number of pages to write in the novel, define what needs done to the gamebook, or lining up correspondence etc. to support further (fruitless) submissions of Robin Hood.

I’ve also reached a natural break in the fantasy novel. I think it’s about 2/3 finished, so I’m re-reading what I’ve written so far with an eye to consistency and rhythm: what scenes work well in which order, which scenes are superfluous and which new scenes need written. Watching a load of French New Wave films recently has been fascinating for many reasons, not least in the way they draw attention to the film editor’s art.

As for fixing inconsistencies and replacing placeholder names, I’ll not worry about them until later unless they’re so obvious they impede comprehension. Fixes at the level of the sentence – or the individual word – can wait until much (much) later.

It looks like this novel will consist of 5 parts (hey, it worked for Shakespeare*), and I’ve written to the end of Part 3. Now I face a decision. Part 2 is stylistically very different from the rest of the novel. Do I write Part 4 in the same way? Would repeating the use of the effect I employed there weaken the impact of Part 2, or would it do the opposite and help to create a symmetry to the book’s overall form? I’m leaning towards the latter.

 

 

*Yes, I know the division of Renaissance plays into a 5-act structure is a later editorial convention.

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The mutation of an idea

We moved from Edinburgh to Peterborough in January 2000. At that point, my sole experience of the Soke had been a trip a few weeks before, to find a place to live, and as a stop on the East Coast railway line.

The landscape around the town was a revelation, even when just viewed from the train. My only previous visit to East Anglia was fifteen years before, and I’d forgotten in the interim how flat it was. Everyone knows East Anglia is (mostly) flat, but lots of landscapes look flat-ish. This was really flat. As Andrew in Thunder and Lightnings says

“He had always imagined that if you lived in a flat place you could see for miles across the rolling planes but now he found that it wasn’t so. The horizon was in the next field”.

In addition, the earth around Peterborough is a brown so deep it’s almost black. The exposed dark furrows of those winter fields struck a chord within me, and gave me an image – and no more – that I wanted to turn into a story. A story of magic and darkness.

When we moved, I took the train to London every day, a 75-minute commute twice daily1. Until Huntingdon (the first stop), I’d have a carriage all to myself in which I could sit at a table and write. It was bliss, in its way, as the Cambridgeshire (and then Bedfordshire, and Hertfordshire) countryside rolled underneath. By the time I got off at Finsbury Park, I would have pages written.

The first thing I attempted to write was something which evoked and explored the feeling those flat, flat fertile plains had stirred in me. I can’t remember now how much I wrote before giving up; 20 pages at most, maybe. I don’t believe every piece of fiction needs fully thought-through before you begin to write, but it needs enough of a skeleton to support its own weight. This didn’t, and it was quietly shelved.

Still the idea, or a mutation of the idea, persisted. Years later (five or six) I started again; the landscape differed (it was set in a generic non-place, though we’d moved back to Edinburgh by then) but the characters that the original image had suggested remained. This story got no further. I resurrected it, with a different slant, different setting, different story – and gradually evolving characters – every winter for the next half dozen years. Like the proverbial grandfather’s axe, the story I was “re-starting” bore no resemblance in any way to the original germ, but in my head it was still the same tale, or at least a direct descendant of it. None of them were ever finished, though well over a hundred pages were written across the years.

The novel I am (slowly) coming towards the climax of, more than three years on, is technically the most recent variant. It contains neither of the original characters, none of the initial motivations or themes or concerns, and takes place entirely in a constructed fantasy world.

Jonathan Coe, in a recent Guardian, said

“Like many authors, I have a stash of unpublished manuscripts in a bottom drawer, and sometimes I cling to the idea that they might be worth exhuming. Of course, they never are.”

He’s right: now and then I look through old notebooks in the hope of finding a lost gem that I can polish, but all I see are ideas on which the dust is so thick its obscured whatever values they may once have had.

However, the nights are almost drawing out again and in those wintry mornings which have a clarity peculiar to the east coast, ideas for a new piece of fiction stir. One which takes that long-faded original idea and adds to it my current interests (and, hopefully, evidence of seventeen years’ more practice), sets it squarely in a locale to which I have a greater connection, and can tie many different things to. I hope I can finally do the idea justice.

 

 

1The litany of stations as read by the announcer at Finsbury Park every evening has a rhythm I still find soothing:

“Stevenage Hitchin

Arlesey Biggleswade

Sandy St Neots

Huntingdon

and

Peterborough”

 

 

All change: Jan Mark’s “Thunder and Lightnings” (1976)

In my previous post I wrote about nostalgia and the loss of contiguity that can trigger it. There are books, though, that I have always had: every house move has seen them boxed, shifted and unpacked; and, in time, re-read. For these books, each re-reading reveals new aspects: a form of anti- or a-nostalgia. One of these is Jan Mark’s debut novel, Thunder and Lightnings (1976).

I loved this book as a ten year-old. I took it everywhere; read it countless times. I can remember being on at least one visit to a family friend’s and immersing myself in it, to the exclusion of the other children present. I love the illustrations by Jim Russell, and the cover (above, again by Russell, such as you’d never see nowadays) of my battered edition, but I also love the current edition’s cover art.

It was not, however, the book I’d hoped it would be. When it was advertised in the school book club brochure (“The Chip Club” or “The Lucky Club”, I forget which), as an aircraft fanatic I read the blurb and expected it to be about planes. The cover did nothing to dispel the notion. So when it came, I was a little disappointed. Surely I can’t have been surprised: I knew it was going to be fiction, after all. But it wasn’t “about planes”. What was it about?

Andrew Mitchell moves with his family from Kent to a tiny village in rural Norfolk. At school he meets local oddball Victor Skelton, who is obsessed by aircraft: specifically the Lightnings that fly from nearby RAF Coltishall. The two become friends: Victor is an outsider and although never spelled out as such, Andrew is too. As Andrew becomes familiar with Victor’s idiosyncracies (which are largely his means of keeping the rest of the world at bay), he worries about how his new friend will react to the imminent replacement of Lightnings by the newer Jaguar aircraft.

That’s it, in a nutshell: two boys meet, new boy is drawn into local boy’s hobby, worries about how his friend will adapt to change. There’s no plot, as such; something I’m not sure I realised aged ten. Events occur, a friendship develops, and although it most certainly is about things, that’s pretty much it.

On a surface level, then, it’s about a friendship. But what it’s really about is change, and adapting to it.

Andrew is used to change; his family have moved many times in his twelve years: “I went to three junior schools and two secondary schools”. Victor has lived in Pallingham all his life; Lightnings have flown overhead for as long as he can remember. He is anxious about a future without them; the recent retiral of the Hawker Hunter has plainly given him a foretaste of what life without his beloved interceptors may be like. But Victor’s friendship with Andrew – evidently his first close one – and his newfound fondness for guinea pigs suggest a diversification of interests will help him through the loss.

Although Andrew is plainly used to change, he is unmoored by the move, and is feeling his way through his new life. His baby brother, Edward, is too young to be affected by the change, and accepts everything with a nonchalant interest. Until encountering Victor, Andrew’s schooldays are a vacuum: he makes little effort to reach out to other pupils, and is consequently ignored.

Andrew’s personality only comes out in relief, as he is the character through whose eyes we (mostly) read the story. In many of his conversations with Victor he is highly pedantic (not that Victor notices; or, if he does, he bats it back to Andrew). In his favour, he is self-aware enough to realise this and tries to stop, but can’t help himself. I’ve maybe re-read it three or four times since childhood, and the most recent time (last week) I was surprised by how much Andrew needles Victor, unable to reconcile the other boy’s contradictions. Throughout the book there is a face-off between a type of low-level chaos and a desire for order. Andrew’s family and Victor represent the slightly rough-around-the-edges chaotic side, while Victor’s uptight parents with their spotlessly clean house, and (arguably) Andrew with his need for tidy explanation, represent the desire for order. Such dynamics help show both boys that one person’s normal is another person’s weird, and vice-versa.

Much of the boys’ discussions take the form of low-level arguments: in the proper sense of considering each other’s point of view and revising one’s own accordingly. In this manner, Mark makes many points that no doubt escaped me as a ten year old. The boys – and Mrs. Mitchell – read the action strips in boys’ comics, but as they begin to use a nascent critical intelligence, they see through the jingoism and fantasy that usually1 underpins such characters. This is reflected in a trip to a war grave near Coltishall, where the militarism that’s never far from the surface in the UK is simply and elegantly dismantled. It’s an impressive feat the author pulls off, in getting across a genuine love of aircraft with a recognition of what purpose these multi-million-pound weapons perform, while simultaneously recognising the historical feats of the Battle of Britain yet not romanticising or idealising them.

The main theme of adaptation to change by-passed me at the very time in my life I could have done with learning from it. A parental divorce when I was very young, though I was spared the worst, left me at some subconscious level wary of upheaval. Years later, around the time I devoured Thunder and Lightnings, my Gran died. I used to go to her house for lunch every day; in her absence, rather than join my classmates in the school dinner hall, I’d head up the high street and eat my packed lunch on doorsteps, hidden from view, as if repeating the forms of the ritual would restore the substance of it. Taking pity on me, I was occasionally invited into friends’ houses by their parents to eat with them. I’ve no idea how long this went on for – no more than a week or two – before my Mum and Dad found out and I had to go to the dinner hall.

In denial? Maybe a little.

On a slightly more bathetic note, I went off football (having been a big Aberdeen fan, like most boys in my part of the country in the early 80s) when Alex Ferguson and some of the team’s best players – the ones who’d brought so much glory to the club – left throughout 1986. Like Victor, never having known the team to have changed more than just a little at the edges, the wholesale transformation (for the worst; they won only three more trophies in the next decade) was not something I could accept. I went off football almost overnight, and for the best part of a decade2.

Mark wrote the book for a competition (which she won) soon after moving to Norfolk; she based the Mitchells’ shock at the jets’ noise on her own. Coltishall replaced its Lightning fleet with Jaguars in the summer of 1974 (the year I was born), though they continued to fly from bases such as RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire until they were finally withdrawn from service in 1988. Jaguars were scrapped in 2007, though Coltishall itself had closed down the year before. There is a photograph of me, in my Aberdeen shirt, standing in front of the Lightning “gate guard” at Coltishall, taken one summer evening in (I think) 1985. Yes, I pestered my parents to drive from the caravan park we were staying at near Yarmouth, through the back roads of East Anglia, purely to see where Thunder and Lightnings was set.

As well as being the first I’d heard of Green Shield stamps and the phrase “a fine and private place”,  it taught me (pace Andrew’s Mum) “there’s no such thing as fair”. Many years later I gave a cameo role to Andrew and Victor as adults, in my story The Other Field, as a tribute.

Victor, as Andrew’s mother surmises, is more adaptable than Andrew imagines. While Andrew fears that their new friendship may already be waning, Victor is planning cycle trips to RAF Marham to see his namesakes, the Handley-Page Victors. He sees no reason for the rest of the summer holidays not to provide a deepening and a furthering of their friendship. At the end – no spoiler alert needed; this isn’t a plot-driven book, and the replacement of Lightnings by Jaguars is a matter of historical record – Victor seems accepting of the end of the era. A lone aircraft does a trademark vertical ascent:

“”forty thousand feet in two and a half minutes”, whispered Victor…he grinned, his old and famous grin, and made a searing dive with his hand.

“Well, if that wasn’t [the last Lightning of all], that ought to have been…”

There are books you start again as soon as you’ve finished them, but the ambiguous ending of this one meant that was never the case for me. No matter, I’d return to it sooner or later.

 

 

1 I’ll look at this in a future post. In my previous post on nostalgia, I split artefacts into three categories: those which were lost and which when regained are the “true” nostalgic items; those which travel alongside you and grow with you, revealing something new each time (Thunder and Lightnings); and those which also travel alongside you but which do not grow, and form a sort of halfway-house between the other two. Into that category falls I Flew With Braddock.

2 And when I got back into it, it was as a fan of Aberdeen’s big 1980s rivals, Dundee United.

 

Source:

Mark, Jan: Thunder and Lightnings (Puffin, 1978)

 

photo: Jamie Gorman

The lure, the lie and the lessons of nostalgia

“Proust had a bad memory…The man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.”

Samuel Beckett, ‘Proust

To begin with, the first part of the quote above must look like exceptional contrariness on Beckett’s part. Proust’s most famous work is, after all, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the prime subject of which, explored at great length and from every conceivable angle, is the working of the passage of time on memory. Surely Proust, of all of us, had a good memory?

But no. What Beckett means is that if Proust had a good memory, he would never have forgotten his past in the first place; it would always have been with him. In this case, his memories would have been subject to the mind’s processes – re-remembering, mis-remembering – which render memories unreliable because they irreversibly distort the original mental “image”.

It is only because Proust’s memory was so poor that the taste of the famous madeleine (dipped in tea) brought everything rushing back to him, fresh and undisturbed. He’d forgotten everything about his early life in Combray. So, untouched and unsullied, it comes flooding back with an intensity and vividness not available to the person who has periodically revisited those memories in the interim. These recollections – the result of involuntary memory – are not “sepia-toned”; on the contrary, for the brief period that they can be grasped (before the conscious mind seeks to falsify them by expanding the captured moment, or by attaching other, non-contiguous memories), their immediacy renders them as vivid as the present moment.

Nostalgia is big business. Ebay could barely exist without it. As I write, Blade Runner 2049 is in the cinemas (and explores the role of memories in the creation of the self), and Episode VIII of Star Wars is not far off release: two movies whose existence owe much to nostalgia on the part of the post-baby-boomer generation that makes up the bulk of their fanbase; a generation to which I, born in the mid-70s, belong.

Nostalgia has been big business for years, of course. Using Star Wars as an example again: after Return of the Jedi, with the saga finished, interest in that particular universe dried up over the next few years. By their own admission, Lucasfilm never wanted to experience anything like the period from 1986-1992 ever again. But in the early 90s1 fans slowly rediscovered the trilogy, and haven’t let it go since. Of course they hadn’t “forgotten” Luke Skywalker in the same way Proust had forgotten Combray, but the crucial thing in both cases is that the continuum was broken. If something ceases to be a continual presence in your life, when it is later summoned to mind it will trigger associations up to – but not beyond – the point that you and it parted company.

To switch to music; when we shared a student flat in Dundee, my friend Dave and I were into the electronica that was coming out (including Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series) at the time. There are tracks from the early 90s which I have listened to ever since but Dave hasn’t, and vice-versa. As a result, tracks that have formed part of my soundtrack for two decades immediately take Dave back to evenings in a damp-smelling maisonette because he hasn’t heard them in the interim, while they maybe take me back to the bus journey home from work a few weeks ago, because that was only the most recent time I listened to them; or they don’t spark any association at all because they’re a background part of my life.

“”Something to do with eBay”, Johnny reckons
He’s bidding on it now, for a Subbuteo catalogue ’81-’82
He’ll win it, put it in a drawer, and forget he ever bought it.”

Saint Etienne, “Teenage Winter

The key thing about the items in the photo above is not that they date from the 1980s. They don’t necessarily come from contiguous parts of my childhood: I may have devoured Look-In intensely in 1981 but a few years later it would have been a distant memory because I was reading Asterix, and then a few years later Zzap!64. Each stage of childhood is lived intensely; but when it passes, it’s dead. For a child, a decade feels like a geological era and at 14 you are no longer the person you were at 7, or even 11.

What links these items is that they are all things which I had – or which I remember, or my friends had – at the time but were thrown out (or lost) and which I purchased much, much later, usually via ebay. Although during this time (and to this day, though my son has custody of them now) I had, for instance, a Star Wars annual and other books and magazines from my childhood, the things pictured above had long since ceased not only to be present in my life, but even to exist in my voluntary memory. As a normal and healthy part of growing up I had forgotten the existence of these things, and from day to day my memory wouldn’t even stray down pathways that would lead me to recall them. This is what the Star Wars generation had forgotten: the memorabilia and paraphernalia that – while the films remained – had long been thrown out, passed down to younger siblings or given to charity shops

There are studies which show that nostalgia can trigger positive feelings in the brain and certainly the pleasurable shock of recognition when confronted with something long-forgotten is a thing you can crave. The photo at the top is proof of that.

 img_4033-e1509630237793.jpg

But what is it we’re looking for when we’re nostalgia-hunting? The idea that things were better in the past, that there was some golden age that we can hark back to, is a reactionary one that I do not subscribe to. But for the vast majority of adults, childhood was a time largely free of responsibility, when life had an intensity that is experienced much less frequently when you’re older. And nostalgia needn’t mean looking as far back as that; as I said above, the continuity of presence is the key, and once that is broken you can be nostalgic for things that happened (relatively) much more recently.

The things in the photo above date from roughly 1981-1986. A little after that, my main interest was horror fiction, much of which I’m happy to re-read today. But revisiting things from earlier, from pre-adolescence, should not surely be done with the expectation of gaining anything of worth, should it? Most of these items are annuals, comics and magazines, and their very form is significant: they are ephemera, weekly or monthly output designed to be read and discarded. Books are different, or can be (the gamebooks in the photo are a bit of an outlier: not disposable but still unlikely to be of any real worth to someone older than their target market of boys aged 10-14). So these things represent the little background forgotten elements of my childhood. The nouveau-roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet, perhaps surprisingly, sums this up perfectly in his autobiography:

“the importance of things…obviously doesn’t lie in their intrinsic significance but in the way they stick in our memory”

The associations are the key. The items above don’t actually offer anything significant other than their existence, and the fact that they remind me of a particular time of my life. Is there anything deeper that my obtaining them seeks to reach? What did I actually gain from buying these things? From watching dodgy VHS transfers to YouTube of 70s and 80s kids’ TV opening titles? “A walk down memory lane” is an inappropriate metaphor. It isn’t a bucolic stroll the nostalgia-junkie seeks, it’s a jolt; a hit.

The initial thrill is just that: initial, a short-lived burst of – what? A moment wherein your own personal Combray opens up; the layout of the bedroom you had when you were eight; the wallpaper, a mood, an atmosphere, whatever was in the charts at the time. You thumb through the magazines for a brief diversion: maybe some of the stories are better-written and better-drawn than you appreciated at the time, maybe some others aren’t, and even the adverts – those least important, most peripheral pieces of cultural jetsam – give you the hit. “I remember that! And that!” And what of it?

Because our oldest memories were created by a child’s perception, which is very different from that which we have as an adult, it lends those mental snapshots an incomplete, hazy quality, into the gaps of which can easily slip a sense of the eerie. It is this disjoint – an adult playback of a childhood recording – that has made hauntology such a successful aesthetic in recent years.

In using nostalgia not solely for its own sake, but by acknowledging and actively promoting the argument that the past is not a golden age lost, but exists instead as a weirder place than we can now “properly” recollect, hauntology is in this respect a progressive mode.

But, my interest in hauntology notwithstanding, I’d be kidding myself if I’d bought a thirty-year old copy of Look-In for anything other than that first rush of familiarity.

IMG_4035

The ten minutes spent leafing through the magazines above were the mental equivalent of the junkie hit: intense but fleeting; maybe leaving a sense of wasted time and money, a slight feeling of shame, and a promise never to do it again. What were you looking for? A time that’s passed, long past. An impression of it, then: for what reason? To do what with it? A retreat, anaesthetic.

Buying such items again is a form of reclamation; an attempt to recapture the time in which they were part of our lives. But all we end up with are the artefacts; the associations we hope to rekindle with them – temporal, ephemeral – are long gone.

Nostalgia can be a sugar-coated trap. Life should be lived facing forward, not back. Brexit is only the most extreme version of what happens if you disengage with the present and wallow in nostalgia (or, worse, nostalgia for a time before you were born2, the reality of which you therefore can’t verify and which has been pre-packaged for you).

However, Proust, in his final volume (Le Temps retrouvé – Time Regained), has the epiphany that all of one’s past still exists, and can be accessed via involuntary memory by finding the relevant triggers. For him, these include an uneven cobblestone, a ringing doorbell and, obviously, the madeleine. But he also realises that this time must first be lost before it can be found, in order for it to contain meaning.

As I’ll examine in a subsequent post, there are things from childhood that grow with you, in which you can constantly find relevance and meaning. Other things don’t, and we may regard them with a sense of bewilderment that we ever invested so much emotional stock in them. A further type of things, also, don’t speak to the person we are now but can still offer a briefly enjoyable visit to the past. They give nothing new, they speak only to us like a crackly recording.

This last category, I think, covers the things photographed above. The things from childhood which still speak to me are those whose presence in my life has never been interrupted: for the very reason, possibly, that they still held meaning for me. There are countless items – and I’ll look at them too in the future – that I have not sought to re-obtain, even though they ostensibly belong to the same category as Look-In and Zzap!64. The items in the photo, then, represent those things in which I have tried, and failed, to find contemporary relevance and which have delivered the (pleasurable, but ultimately sterile) hit of nostalgia for its own sake.

 

 

1Someone (not me) could write a thesis (furthering the work of Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher in this area) on the part played by the events of the late 80s and early 90s (downfall of Communism/”the end of history”, etc.) in creating a cultural environment which could give rise to the burgeoning nostalgia industry; ironic given that from the viewpoint of 2017, the early 90s seem like a lost utopia.

2The “WWII/finest-hour/time-when-the-population-was-entirely-white” mentality that led us into this mess.

sources:

Beckett, Samuel: Proust & Three Dialogues (Calder, 1965)

Proust, Marcel: In Search of Lost Time, (six volumes, Vintage, 1996)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (Calder, 1987)

 

photos: Jamie Gorman

Priorities

I have four writing priorities at the moment. They are, in no particular order (and that’s the problem):

  • this blog and my duty to you, dear reader
  • unfinished fantasy novel, 185 MS pages after 3 years’ work
  • pro-cycling-themed gamebook, 1st draft completed, needs reworked
  • Robin Hood novel, completed 3 years ago and redrafted, and submitted (so far without success) to several agencies

The Robin Hood book has gathered dust since the beginning of this year, yet it is currently the only finished item I can “use” (aside from the previously-published short stories on this blog, or available in my self-published collection) to make an entry into publishing.

I enjoy writing this blog. My initial idea was to use it as a showcase for my fiction, but following a stressful restructure at my work which has made me wonder why I’m doing a job so far removed from what I always intended to do, the blog has been both a release valve (allowing me to write pieces that aren’t fiction), and a way to practise concision. How successful I’ve been, you can judge.

The gamebook needs a re-draft and then play-tested by guinea pigs friends who have kindly volunteered for the job. The book is a choose-your-own-adventure version of the Tour of Flanders cycle race, and while I realise that the Venn diagram overlap between ‘gamebook fans’ and ‘cycling fans’ is probably pretty small, I think there’s a market for it.

The fantasy novel is the main project (the gamebook was a Friday-night-after-some-Leffe inspiration which, unusually, seemed an even better idea the following morning), and it is probably the true priority. I always feel that I should just write, that that’s the thing, keeping the momentum up and working to produce an end product.

What that means, of course, is that the other stuff – the communication, the self-marketing, the rewriting – takes a back seat and I don’t make any progress; I don’t actually come any closer to publication or getting my name out there. How do other writers juggle these competing priorities?