Under the influence

The artist John Wells was a member of the so-called “St. Ives” group, a loose collective of artists active from the late 1930s to the 1970s. None of the artists in question necessarily thought of themselves as part of a group, and their often fractious relationships makes for great reading. The most illustrious members were Barbara Hepworth – arguably Britain’s greatest female artist – and her husband Ben Nicholson, who moved to the west of Cornwall when war made London an unsuitable place to raise a family. The only “native” Cornishman in the group was Peter Lanyon, whose artistic development after he was demobbed from the RAF was astonishing, and who went on to produce some of the most striking abstract landscape paintings of the 1950s before his tragic early death in 1964.

But – though Lanyon is the artist whose work I love the most – back to Wells, a good friend of his. I have the catalogue from the Tate St. Ives 1998 Wells exhibition (John Wells: The Fragile Cell by Matthew Rose). Wells is a classic case of someone wearing his influences on his sleeve. Works which would be interesting on their own suffer when compared to those by artists Wells evidently (from his letters) admired and was inspired by. So it is possible, looking through the catalogue, to see in Wells’ work a Naum Gabo construction here, a Nicholson or Hepworth geometric drawing there. Only in the early 1950s does he emerge from the shadow of his influences with a series of spiralling, swooping oil-on-board works such as “Sea Bird Forms” and “Aspiring Forms” unlike anything produced by his peers (while still immediately recognisable as post-War abstract art).

I have previously written about riffing: taking a cue from a prior work and running with it, transforming it into an integral part of a whole in which the original motif no longer creates automatic associations with the source – or, if it does, in such a way as to open dialogue with that work. We all have our influences and inspirations. The two are not necessarily the same, and I’ll return to the difference between them in a subsequent post. For some it proves easy to shake off or outgrow those whose work has inspired us. Some never do (I’m looking at you, Noel Gallagher).

Me? Hell, yes. My parents’ attic used to be full of my juvenilia: Kerouac-inspired novels that were so much self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness; a poem that wanted to be Ginsberg’s Howl when it grew up, but never did; stories of domestic appliances turned evil (à la Stephen King’s Christine), or James Herbert-inspired gore; Joycean wordplay; Marquez magical realism; Kelman grittiness. From this list I excuse Star Battle, by me and my friend Will, which so outgrew the Star Wars influence that it was confident enough to name two of its characters “Luke” and “Vader”. We were 9 years old. Cut us some slack.

Paul McCartney said that the “Soul” in Rubber Soul was an acknowledgement of the influence of black American soul music on that album, but which the Fab Four internalised and re-processed to such an extent that only George Martin’s spacious production seems to link it to the dynamics of Philly or Motown.

Moving beyond your influences is a necessary part of maturing as an artist, but I still find myself guilty of adopting the voice of a work that has particularly grabbed me. Sometimes I will want to read fiction of a certain genre to help me get into the mood of what I am trying to write: at other times, fearing the creep of influence, I’ll deliberately read something totally different: non-fiction is a good way of cleansing the literary palate.

In his book How Proust can change your life, Alain de Botton hits the nail on the head. Although he’s talking about literary pilgrimages – going to Illiers to see Proust’s environment, or Dublin to see Joyce’s, or even Cornwall to see that of the St. Ives group – the key is not to look at the artist’s world through your eyes, but to look at your world through their eyes. Learning to see or to think like an artist will let your own voice emerge. This means internalising the lessons of the work; adopting & adapting the mindset, instead of copying the outward form.


Seabird forms © the estate of john wells



John Squire, 1990

In the mid-80s, before their breakthrough in 1989, Manchester band The Stone Roses followed the well-worn path of playing pubs and small venues around Britain and Europe. One such gig saw them play a pub in Dublin, before a crowd used to – and expecting – heavy metal rather than the punk/goth crossover rock the Roses were playing at that point.

Tough crowd.

Glasses and punches were thrown as the band started their set, and the atmosphere didn’t get better when guitarist John Squire started playing the unmistakable riff to Smoke on the Water, one of the heavy rock crowd’s Holy Grail texts. Assuming these English upstarts – with their paisley shirts – were taking the piss, things got heavy.

Now, Squire may have been taking the piss, or just trying to placate the locals – either seems likely. But what is certain is that the Roses – who have not, to date, recorded a cover version in their career (Elizabeth My Dear notwithstanding) – weren’t about to launch into the Deep Purple classic.

My point is that a riff, while a recognisable hook, can also be a diving-off point towards something else (in the Roses’ case, a near-riot); something new, within the context of which the original riff – if properly enmeshed in the new work – can sound totally different, to the extent that it no longer triggers memories of the source material.

Books can be riffs on other works. China Mieville’s Railsea has at its core an obsessive search for a white leviathan and is a riff on, among other things, Melville’s Moby Dick. What’s clear is that riffing on a source is not the same as “copying” or “updating” a text; nor is it the same as a mashup. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not a riff: it doesn’t – it can’t – obscure the source material. At other times, riffs appear almost by happenstance when the author spots connections between her work-in-progress and an existing text.

Riffing on a story can be a useful starting-off point if you’re short of inspiration. In my own experience, though, this doesn’t make for a successful story. The source material is used as a prop, and the new work is unable to stand independently. I wrote a story called Surfacing in 2004 or so, parts of which I still rate, but whose debt to the swimming motif in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film Three Colours: Blue drowned it at birth (pun intended).

A later story, The Other Field, was my attempt at a timeslip/timeloop story. Only midway through, when I realised it included an East Anglian landscape and English Electric Lightning aircraft, did I make a few (hopefully subtle) nods towards a favourite book from my childhood. When I was 10, I must have read Jan Mark’s Thunder and Lightnings a dozen times or more, and I still have my well-worn Puffin copy.

My story may have existed in some form if I’d never read Mark’s book: impossible to say. But spotting the link, and weaving in acknowledgements to Thunder and Lightnings gave it – for me – an extra dimension. I’m not claiming this for The Other Field, but such riffing can create a relationship between two works; a dialogue, even, if we assume that a work, however old, is created anew with each reading. Going (back) to the original after reading a work that riffs on it can add nuance to one’s experience of the original.

I doubt the crowd in Dublin listened to Deep Purple in a new light after John Squire’s improvisation. But who knows?


photo credit: John Squire (1990) by Ian T Tilton



Flitting. The word suggests transience: quick, uncertain movements. Not lingering. And maybe that’s what posts should be: snapshots of where your head is, nothing over-thought.

But ‘flitting’ is also the word – in Scotland anyway – for moving house. That suggests a stay of a much longer duration, of certainty and purpose.

The things that interest me, and which I’ll write about here, I move between. I obsess over them, drain them dry of interest, and move on. But I return – re-read, re-listen, re-view. These things provide a form of sustenance. And new interests are added to this core, over time.

They include:

  • Clive Barker. Into the Gyre is a chapter title from his 1987 novel Weaveworld, my favourite book.
  • The Nouveau Roman: French avant-garde fiction from the 50s and beyond, whose proponents included Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras.
  • Daphne du Maurier. “Rebecca? Frenchman’s Creek?” Yes. “Old lady fiction?” No, no, no.
  • Hauntology/Folk Horror/time -slips and -loops, labyrinths temporal and spatial: gyres, in fact. Robert Macfarlane’s 2015 essay The Eeriness of the English countryside tied together lots of things I was into, and showed me a world of stuff I hadn’t come across before. I’m still following that particular thread.

I’ll talk about my own writing, and share some with you too (see Fiction). I’ve been writing for over thirty years, since my friend Will and I jointly wrote and illustrated (not to mention acted-out-in-the-playground) Star Battle. It was in no way whatsoever inspired by Star Wars. Not. At. All.

Since then I’ve made plenty of mistakes and fallen into all the traps that are a necessary part of becoming a better writer. As long as you learn how to get out of them. “Fail again”, said Samuel Beckett; “fail better”.

Thanks for dropping into the gyre. See you around.