VISITING STONEHENGE, 1958
When we came first it was
standing in corn.
You reached it by a dusty, rutted track
and the wide white and golden downs
were born aloft by sky and skylark song.
We picnicked with our Thermos in the wild grass
on outspread rugs, devouring sandwiches my mother made,
lay back and watched the forming and reforming clouds,
the cricket's prance, the fleeting flight of butterflies and bees.
When we came first it was
mute, mysterious, from somewhere lost in time,
untold by science. You could run your fingertips
along each deep striation, feel the sun's warmth,
the shadow's coolness, sense
our planet's poise, its massive substance
grabbed and grappled with
by our hands.
Wednesday, 20 November 2019
OUR CHARACTERS - WHERE DO THEY COME FROM AND WHERE ARE THEY GOING?
One of the joys of writing is that it gives us a chance to play God. It allows us to shut ourselves up in our cosy little room with a cup of coffee and create a world which we (almost) entirely control while the ‘real’ world spins alarmingly out of control all around us. I say ‘almost’ because even our imaginary worlds sometimes run amok.
One of our most vital functions as God is to give birth to our characters. Fortunately we are spared the mess and pain of actual childbirth, for our characters just pop up fully formed and fully clothed (unless you’re E. L. James) and going about the business of enacting our story. But where do they come from?
Most writers will answer that they somehow emerge from the very fabric of the conception, like living organisms miraculously forming out of the primordial soup. Speaking as one who prefers writing realist fiction set in the contemporary world, the seeds of most of my novels and stories have come from events in my own life or the lives of people I know. It is generally true to say, therefore, that the characters have been loosely based on the protagonists in those dramas, but only very loosely. For once he or she has been born, a character tends to take on a life of their own and often ends up unrecognizable as the real-life person who inspired them, their characteristics often redirecting the plot.
Authors of science fiction, historical or fantasy novels may find their characters emerge in a different way. Historical novels often contain real historical figures who have been fictionalised – something which is possible since, however great the body of learning surrounding them, it is usually contradictory and they can thus be safely remodelled by the novelist. But whatever genre the author works in, I’m sure they would find (if they’re honest with themselves) a person, or people, they know - or a combination of people - at the root of their character. Scratch beneath the surface of your witch or vampire and you’ll probably find your parents in law.
Then comes the task of naming our babies. My wife’s cousin has two teenage boys called James and Sam, whose names I always confuse (to everyone’s acute annoyance) since, to me, Sam looks exactly like a James and James like a Sam. It is bizarre how certain names seem to suit certain people, and I am not sure how far this is subjective or objective. In our novels, of course, we are free to call our characters what we like and if they look like a Sam we can call them Sam or we might call them something entirely different to make them less predictable and more memorable. Sometimes the character seems to be born with a name attached and sometimes it’s right and sometimes it isn’t. I certainly find that my characters acquire their names very early on in the process – seemingly out of nowhere – and then I’m stuck with them. To change a character’s name two months into writing a first draft seems almost impossible. You’ve got to know them intimately by then and to change their name would be like changing your child’s name when it’s five years old just because you’ve got bored with it.
This is also true of the character’s physical appearance, although I usually find that the images I have in my head are rather vague and I like to keep my descriptions equally vague – apart from some precise but sparing pointers. To state that a male character has, for instance, ‘wide, hazel eyes with bushy eyebrows, a long straight nose and full sensuous lips’ is, I think, a mistake, partly because it’s hard for readers to retain all those details in their mind’s eye and partly because those features may remind them of someone they dislike.
Which brings us to another vital aspect of character-creation – the role of the reader. For a character is not wholly a creation of the writer, after all, but a collaboration between the writer’s and the reader’s imaginations. If the writer says nothing about a male character’s height, for example, the reader will tend to supply a man of average height – or a bit taller if they happen to like tall men. If the writer only mentions a character’s eye or hair colour, the reader will tend to extrapolate physical attractiveness since – let’s face it – most of us like our characters to be easy on the mind’s eye. And it is the reader’s experience, after all, which ultimately matters.
I think this is why problems arise when books are made into films. It’s not simply that the character the reader has formed and grown to love in their imagination may not look anything like Angelina Jolie or Johnny Depp or Sir Ian McKellan but that these celluloid creations have a different essence, a different constituency to literary characters. This is also true when a writer introduces a ‘real’ person into the narrative as a cameo (Tony Blair, the Queen for example) because the glaring reality of these people in our minds eye throws the literary creation out of focus.
Any writers who are kind enough to read this post will probably say I’m just stating the obvious, but I thought I would state it anyway. The great characters of literature – Jane Eyre, Mr Darcy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, James Bond to name just a few among thousands – have become so much part of our cultural consciousness that we sometimes forget that they don’t exist, that they’re just figments of someone’s imagination. Yet the workings of those imaginations – and those of all writers – remains endlessly fascinating and one of the great mysteries and miracles of human creativity.
Saturday, 6 July 2019
SUMMER POEMS (from 'Glimpses')
upon a far
a road leading to them
Hot fields of corn had drawn us onwards, upwards
and the clouds cried and skies
soared with buzzards
and earth below lay wide beneath our feet
and distant seas bore ships of sunlight
vanishing. I thought only
how to understand, enshrine,
in each moment of this life,
SMELL OF SUMMER
dung, the fleeting dragonfly
alighting on my jeans
of barely beaten air
beaded by a mirrored sun
not meeting mine
earth, of husk and dust and death and briefest
In the churchyard, here
behind the hedge, lie flowers
for the dead, dying.
IN A MARSH CHURCH
Cries of sheep and rooks,
the drone of tractors turning hay,
reach here where cut flowers in a plastic vase
have not been changed
and Christ is always crucified
in dim glass.
MIDSUMMER NIGHT AT TYNEPITS COTTAGE
The curtain stirs
against the bright west
a moth purrs
WASHMORE HILL ON THE BERKSHIRE DOWNS, JUNE
unhindered on these open, empty hills,
its ripples, tides and currents
echoed in the convolutions of the turning corn;
now deepest green is swept with silver grey
and warmer green with russet, russet gold
and gold with cream.
The downs are swirling, seething like the sea
about a stillness held within the grain
IN AN ANCIENT WOOD ON FAWLEY DOWN
this tangled mound of thorn,
the wild clematis.
bears all the sun's radiance,
bears all the shadows of the earth
ENTERING A WOOD ON THE HIGH DOWNS. SUMMER
each footstep snaps the silence
engrained by sunlight;
a speck beyond the farthest far horizon
of cones, of branches,
PETT LEVEL. JULY 5th
riding on the wind
TRAVELLING IN AUGUST
a hot wall of light
snapping ears of corn stand static
in the throbbing air
iron tracks converge, evaporate
among convolvulus and buttercups
the journey stretches into possibilities,
the rockhard road
leads into mirages
over white dust
the harvest valley
out beyond this cage of coolness
a shattered window rattles in the wind
where gulls rise
above the dead water and the dead sand;
the city murmuring
across the sea exhales its columns curling
to the clouds;
the earth burns -
specked upon the blue
IN A WOOD ON THE DOWNS
Thorn on thorn on thorn,
this web of sunlight holds
the spider spinning in its universe.
Saturday, 29 June 2019
WINCHELSEA STATION, MARCH
is the thorn burning
in the dark wood,
the sky's chasm
slashing green across the hills;
the freshly gleaming
of each unfolding leaf, each blade of corn
incised upon its own shadow.
is the crow suspended gold above the cold
furrowed trunks aglow beneath the hedge;
dogwood, willow, bending booming writhing
in the east wind, the sky soaring,
ON A WALK WITH TERRY HULF
Secret lanes near Snargate,
hazy February afternoon;
pausing, twigs of hawthorn mesh in sunlight,
moving on, the mesh dissolves, resolves;
someone has cut some firewood,
stacked it neatly,
leaving it to moss and woodlouse;
here the fence is broken, through the hedge
some bullocks stand around a field
motionless; beyond lies kale
the empty Marsh.
FEBRUARY - TWO HAIKU
Dying winter sun
glints and glows on thorns probed
by frail infinity
One sheep sharp upon
the skyline; winter sunlight
floods the scarred valley
in the vast hollow
of the sky
the shingle shimmering
beneath our feet.
sounds that barely brush the silence,
flitting silhouettes on webs of twigs
with pencil tails
in bouncing, chirping squadrons grouped
on gleaming clouds; a mist before the sun,
calling on a cold
PARTING AT ST PANCRAS STATION
(Before the refurbishment)
and its monstrous sweep
of voices, sliding feet
to dim glass
against the sky's
on empty platforms
not in words
absolute reality of things
MEMORY AND MEMORIES - THREE HAIKU
Notes float through blossom
from his old pipe - drapes drifting,
slipper beating time.
Wooden stairs climbing
to the dark loft, scent of hay
and dry apples gone.
Where does time carry
all the substance of our lives?
Even stones dissolve.
THREE RUINED CHURCHES ON ROMNEY MARSH
HOPE, ALL SAINTS
As you reach,
through wiry, waving grass and scattered trees,
this rubble henge against a vacant sky,
it forms a church's shape.
now shelters only huddled sheep and ghosts,
restructured only in imagination
on a mound among some roofless walls and stones.
Wild grasses wave
where knees once bent in prayer,
bones are scattered on the harrowed earth
where bread and wine were shared.
As the daylight fails,
as the ruined tower darkens
on the fading clouds,
as the blackbird, scolding,
swoops among the bushes,
in remembered voices and in silence
comes the moment of reconsecration
on this empty land.
SLOW-WORM ON THE ALLOTMENT
of a sheet of plastic,
the surreptitious slithering away
from light and scrutiny -
a length of living braid, her tiny head
in glimpses probing, parting weeds,
within her home of rotting compost,
DAWN AFTER SNOW
dignified by pale light,
a bird chirping very softly
on a neighbour's lawn;
by the vanished path,
tips, stumps of things
beyond the window.
to be discovered
by the cold
Such a small
thing to ask
such a large
thing to gain
the surf breaking on the sand
Wednesday, 10 April 2019
IN PRAISE OF BOB
One of the joys of allotment gardening is that it forces miserable, anti-social old sods like me to emerge from their shell and connect with other miserable, anti-social old sods. The fruits of this reluctant intercourse, I’ve discovered, is a wealth of wisdom and practical advice, not to mention free plants and, as the seasons roll by, some firm friendships. Sometimes – for a coy and quivering veggie-virgin like me – one of them might become a kind of mentor and a role model.
Such a one, for me, is Bob – Bob Wheel. We have so much in common, Bob and I – we’re both short, old and ugly with bad backs, although Bob, despite his shortness, is built like an outside convenience of brick construction with hands like JCB shovels. He always wears a cap or woolly hat with faded camouflage fatigues and his slow, thoughtful conversation is punctuated by repeated attempts to light an inch of bedraggled roll-up dangling from his lips. He speaks a dialect of Hastings more ancient than Basque, and our early encounters were fraught with a number of communication hiccups. Opening up about his life, he told me he had once been an ‘odd carrier’. What on earth, I wondered, is an ‘odd carrier’? Someone, presumably, who works in close conjunction with an even carrier. I twigged when he added, ‘Some o’ them odds weighed over a hundredweight. Buggered my back.’ On another occasion he advised me to improve my land in winter by digging in a bit of ‘arse shit’. While I was wondering what other kind of shit there is (apart from the obvious) he added, ‘or kay shit’.
His allotment is a joy to behold – the soil rich and dark and fine, his veg obscenely robust and plentiful, his paths fitted with black matting covered in woodchips and not a weed in sight. And where I have but one composter, this cheeky bastard has five. On seeing his plot, I instantly lost all desire to become as great a writer as Marques or as great a painter as Picasso, my one aspiration being to make my allotment look like Bob’s.
I felt so flattered that he took me under him wing – probably because he felt sorry for me – offering me boxes of plants that he’d raised at home as well as copious quantities of veg that I hadn’t dared to attempt – like sweetcorn and beetroot. That first summer, truth be told, we ate almost as much of Bob’s produce as my own. It was in June, however, that he showed his true colours. Since I can’t use a strimmer because of my back, I have to rely on hand weeding, and things got out of control, the couch and nettles and hogweed on my paths and borders were running wild to a point that I was being threatened with THE LETTER. The Letter – or the formal notification from the Parish Council to give it it’s full title – is the one thing (apart from pigeons, caterpillars, clubroot, slugs and blackfly) that strikes dread into the heart of every allotmenteer, the formal warning to shape up or ship out, basically. I went into denial, hiding my head in the sand but, after a few days away in Dorset, I wandered over to my allotment dreading what ravages nature might have wrought, only to find that the weeds had all been strimmed and raked away. I knew the phantom strimmer had to be Bob and when I challenged him about it, he told me to fuck off, which confirmed me in my suspicions.
Imagine my concern then when my guardian angel, who’d practically lived on his allotment over the summer, suddenly disappeared with the swallows in autumn. Of course, there’s obviously less to do on a plot in winter than in summer, so people do tend to disappear. What concerned me, though, was that Bob had left his leeks, beans and sweetcorn unharvested, his beanpole trellis had collapsed into a heap and weeds were reclaiming his perfect tilth. It seemed so out of character to allow this to happen and, since he’s the same vintage as me, I was terrified he might have fallen ill or even – I hardly dared think it – returned to the great compost heap from whence we all came. I asked round the town to try to find out what had happened to him but since he lives in Ore – a world away – the news was scant. Someone claimed to have seen him drunk outside the Carlisle pub in Hastings but I knew that couldn’t be Bob – it wasn’t his style.
Then, one gloomy afternoon in early March, I was bent over my digging when I heard the words, ‘You’re doing that wrong, you old fucker,’ and looked up to see a beaming Bob – large as life and twice as ugly – standing outside my gate. I felt so relieved to see him and deeply touched to be greeted in such an affectionate way. I was sure Sir Michael McCauley-Smith CBE – another allotment neighbour who uses his plot as a place to smoke cigars in peace – had never been called an ‘old fucker’ in his life – at least, not like that.
Bob flung open the gate and lumbered over, scooped up and handful of soil in his JCB shovel hand and held it up to his nose. ‘It smells good,’ he proclaimed, chucking it back on the bed, ‘You’ve done well, Pete.’ I needed no greater accolade than that.
I didn’t ask him what had happened to him over the winter and he didn’t tell me. All that mattered was that he was alive and well and back on his land.
I’m afraid this blogpost hasn’t dispensed any useful horticultural wisdom but hey, you can get all you need of that from Monty Don, when he isn't gazing adoringly in the mirror. The only message is to value one’s fellow allotment-holders and not be a miserable old sod.
A peaceful, rural scene or a candidate for THE LETTER?
Thursday, 4 April 2019
IN PRAISE OF BROAD BEANS
With the gardening year progressing, I’ve decided to share some of my horticultural ignorance in a few blogposts loosely based around my allotment. This one was supposed to have been posted in early March so it’s probably a bit irrelevant now.
It’s been a funny old year on the allotment. January was mostly warm and wet in this part of Sussex but February sent a heatwave that had us all believing we’d time-travelled forward into July. Everyone was out on their plots in tee-shirts and colourful sunhats, digging, hoeing and lovingly raking their tilthings and feeling frustrated that, despite the heat, it was only February, winter could still throw some nasty surprises at us and the orgasm of sowing that the weather seemed to inspire was probably best resisted.
One thing I did take a chance with was broad beans. Love them or hate them, broad beans are tough old buggers and, if you can find a spell when the ground’s not too sodden to get them in, they don’t mind taking their chances with the vagaries of the English spring. I have to say that broad beans aren’t my favourite vegetable, being one of that generation that was put off them (and most other vegetables, especially cabbage) by our darling mums who, despite their genius with roasties and Yorkshire pud, would boil the veg to within an inch of its life as though afraid it might jump up out of the pot and attack them. Not to mention School Dinners care of the School Meals Service – a kind of Meals on Wheels for Children and a hangover from the war. Their piece de résitance was spam fritters (or spum fluppers as we used to call them) though they did do quite a nice high-density chocolate pudding with pink custard. What has all this to do with broad beans? I hear you ask and the answer is nothing. The purpose of school in the fifties, it seemed to me, was to systematically destroy any budding passion for anything – nature, classical music, Shakespeare – and vegetables. it’s taken me most of my life to discover that cabbage, for instance, doesn’t have to be a slimy green sludge but – lightly cooked with a little butter and a pinch of sugar – a delicious and nutritious vegetable. The same is true, to some extent, of broad beans. The trick is to pick them young before they turn into leathery old pouches and not overcook them. Also, if you lightly boil them then put them through the fart machine (as we’ve affectionately dubbed our ageing blender) you can make them into quite a presentable dip – a bit like guacamole and even less appetising.
Of course there are all sorts of fun things you can do off the allotment at this time of year, like sowing French beans, leeks, courgettes and all sorts of other things indoors in pots or seed trays then annoying your partner by filling up every available inch of windowsill with them. Alternatively, you can just sit in a rocking chair, drinking a cup of tea and mumbling wise old rustic remarks like ‘Get a root of Glossop-weed in your tilthing and he’ll be there till Wythantide.’In my next blogpost, I shall describe my sod.
My office is doubling as a greenhouse!
Friday, 20 April 2018
“It held my attention from the very first page to the last.”
“I gave up a night’s sleep to get to the end.”
In February of this year, my novel Fraud was published by Signal Books of Oxford. The action is set in the present day and follows the fortunes of four principle characters – a beautiful, troubled Hollywood actress, a young editor who is also an aspiring writer, a middle-aged unsuccessful author and his solicitor wife. It extends over six years and it is suggested at the outset that the star – Nicola Carson – has some dark secret in her past that is contributing to her ‘troubled’ mental condition. This is the pivot around which the plot revolves.
In early April, on a warm, sunny evening rare in this dark and inclement spring, Fraud was launched from The Rye Bookshop in Rye, East Sussex, at a gathering of friends and family which brought joy to my heart since I was the centre of attention and received lots of compliments about my book. I was especially fortunate in having my brother-in-law, Nick Snelgar – himself a published author – give a short speech. In it, he invoked the image of the campfire in prehistoric times, with primitive, pre-literate people hanging on the storyteller’s every word. Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve become more than ever convinced that the story – and the power and beauty of the words in which it is delivered – is the most important aspect of any work of fiction. Of course you have to have vital, well-rounded characters, a sharply-drawn setting and possibly some profound, universal observation about life, but without an arresting story – that constant stimulation of the need to know what happens next – the attention of the audience wanders, whether they be modern readers or hunter-gatherers, and dissatisfaction ensues. The storyteller would not be given supper by the tribe – in fact, he or she might very well become their supper. I was thus delighted to notice, among the numerous readers’ reviews on Amazon, the frequent recurrence of expressions like “page-turner”, “gripping read” and “riveting”. “It held my attention from the very first page to the last,” said one. “I gave up a night’s sleep to get to the end,” said another. That is the highest praise I could have hoped for.
When it comes to characters, I’ve always felt drawn to those who are flawed, whose lives are not easy and whose situations are often determined by misguided decisions or circumstances beyond their control. I am less interested in people who are super-successful and seem to have everything sorted, though I suspect there are far fewer such people around than one might imagine. Scratch beneath the surface of the most super-duper people and you generally find some dark secret or some flaw or failing they’d rather you didn’t know about. Even Nicola Carson, who appears to have everything – beauty, talent, wealth and adulation – is a mess inside.
I’d like to think that, in the course of what is hopefully an arresting, amusing and entertaining story, some ironic observations are made about the nature of modern life – indeed, all life – or, at least, some questions asked. My main concern, however, is that reading Fraud should be an enjoyable and uplifting experience – not a chore or a challenge. There are already enough of those in life!