I’ve been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Lacuna’ and admiring her skill as a historical writer.  I was very enthusiastic about her last book ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ but it lost it’s way towards the end.  This is a much more tightly drawn object but it’s taken me ages to get round to reading it. I bought it last year when it won the Orange Prize and it’s been sitting unopened on my shelves ever since.  Too many people said how fantastic it was and I have a slightly stupid, contrary streak that shies away from things that are over praised.

My reading group picked it so I was forced to open it up and I’m  glad I did.  It is the very best kind of historical writing.  The protagonist is a plaster mixer and chef for the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.  They invite Trotsky to hide in Mexico and  he becomes Trotsky’s secretary.  After Trotsky’s murder he moves to America and struggles through the madnesses of the McCarthy era.

Kingsolver does three things very well; she domesticates history and makes famous historical characters feel homely and human in a convincing way.  Diego Rivera likes sweet pastries – which somehow once she shows it to you is very obvious.  Trotsky puts on an old jumper and mucks out the rabbit hutches which also feels absolutely right.  It’s not that Kingsolver demeans her characters, far from it – they are astoundingly brave people and she shows that.  Instead she puts blood into the myths and turns them back into people.

Despite all this domesticity her writing vibrates with poetry.  It’s a very light fingered poetry with choruses of recurring images and themes like the Lacuna (a kind of tunnel) of the title.  She manages to evoke the Americaness of America and the Mexicaness of Mexico without jingoism or great indigestible clouts of description and theory.

The last thing she does which is so very clever is to keep her readers constantly on the hop.  ’Lacuna’ is one of those books where you can’t see how it all works until you’ve read the very last word.  The narrative is broken up into notebooks, diaries, newspaper clippings and letters.  There are two narrators and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the two countries.  I’ve a prejudice against fractured narratives.  It’s a trick often used by writers to hide the fact they don’t have enough to say.  Not in the case of ‘Lacuna’, here it underlines the meanings and themes of the book, the connections that people can make between alien cultures, the impact of history on our lives, the crazy frenzy of newspapers when they pick up a story and the loneliness of celebrity.  It’s an admirable feat and I take my hat off to her.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rock & Roll, Rhythm and Rut

I haven’t written a piece for a long time because I’ve got out of the rhythm.  There are a lot of links between music and writing and one of the strongest  is a sense of rhythm.  Rhythm of working and rhythm of reading.  Writing and music are temporal arts, they use time as one of their tools and time needs a beat.  To make that tension, to make that roll, you’ve got to have a routine to work to.  When it breaks and you lose the rhythm all that’s left is a scary, shiny white silence and nothing comes out at all.

There’s a myth out there that writers, artists and musicians are crazy, mad people who have wild parties and stay up all night with a whiskey bottle at their elbow.  Many of them do let loose a little when they’ve escaped the harness and they’re not working but that’s when they’re off duty.  Writing (which is the one I know about) demands discipline. You can’t write a novel without a real rhythm of sober work.  You’ve got to get into the rut and stay there day after day after day until you’ve written 80,000, 100,000, 130,000 words.  And when that’s all done you’ve got to work out what’s wrong, build up your characters, fill in your research and write the whole damm thing again for your second draft, and again for your third and your fourth.  You have to hold the complete tune in your head.  You have to build the arc of your story in time sentence by sentence, month after month.  And you can’t get away with just making it shorter.  It doesn’t work like that.  The shorter the work the tighter the rhythm.  It’s one of the reasons I can’t write poetry, I haven’t got enough beat in me.

Lately, for me there’s been too much stuff getting in the way; in my head and in my life, and my story has broken up into discordant parts and random phrases but I’ve done too much to let it lie. I know I need to work at it hard and sit down every day until the whole thing begins to sing together  and I get the rhythm again.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I am involved in mankinde

I’ve just finished reading John Stubbs’ excellent biography of John Donne ‘A Reformed Soul’

Donne lived a couple of centuries after my period but Stubbs is so good at portraying London in what Ackroyd calls its ‘raddled and ribald glamour’ I thought it was worth reading anyway.  Donne, who was born in Bread Street in the City and died in the Deanery of St Paul’s, was a total Londoner and what came through to me very strongly was how much the conditions of London life affected his poetry and philosophy.

His most famous piece of writing centers around the church bells for which London was famous. “Who bends not his eare to any bell” but it has more meaning when we learn that it was written by a very ill man in a dense, crowded and filthy city that yearly suffered from the ravages of plague.  And that it was also written when James I’s reign had joined Scotland to England just as the country was coming to terms with its wrenching split from Europe and Roman Catholicism.

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe: every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

It is a shining human vision growing straight from Donne’s life and the conditions and politics of the time and yet it still teaches us about kindness and connectedness.  Nearly four centuries later when a bell’s tolls have been replaced by Twitter and the internet we can learn of a man’s death in Cairo before his mother does but we are still diminished by that death because we are ‘involved in Mankinde’.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Near and Far

One summer after I’d left school, I was out of cash and desperate for a job. I trudged up stairs to temp agencies where disdainful pink shiny girls in white polyester shirts gave me typing tests and told me to ring back later because they didn’t have anything suitable on their books at the moment.

On a hot dusty day in June I took the tube to the King’s Road in London and visited every single shop up and down the street asking if they had any vacancies.  It was hell but I wouldn’t let myself stop until I’d done the whole road.  The speech I gave to each shop keeper and bored assistant blurred into one long word and I so expected to be rejected that I very soon turned away before the response even came. Afterwards I sat on the bus clutching a sweaty fistful of application forms feeling drained, deadened and very disheartened.

This is all coming back to me because my protagonist is searching for a job.  It’s the fourteenth century so he doesn’t have to do typing tests or fill out pointless application forms but he’s feeling much the same as I did 500 years later sitting on my dusty bus.

I’ve been struggling recently with how different his life is to mine; his religious beliefs, the violence and casual cruelty of his world and the stink and itch of his surroundings.  Then suddenly I have a good morning when I connect through the ages I find something as humble as job hunting to link us back together again.

It doesn’t matter whether it is 14th Century England or 20th Century Russia, the great power and pleasure of fiction is the way it shows us an alien and foreign world and lets us access it through our common human experience. Other people’s lives are strange and wonderful and totally different to ours but we can still understand them because we are all human.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Pen and ink

Writing doesn’t just happen in our heads, it happens in our hands as well.  Part of the reason I keep a journal is that I find it very hard to think without the physical words.  Or more accurately I find it very hard to progress a thought beyond Step One without writing it down.  Writing for me, is the act of drawing out my thinking.  It’s definitely physical.  I know when I have done good work because my knuckles get cramp.  If I’m really motoring my hands take over and the words come out of my pen without my head being involved.  Maybe this is what the Elizabethans were referring to when they talked about the Muse.

I write first drafts long hand and I am quite fetishistic about the equipment I use.  The paper must have enough weight and be plain or squared, I can’t get on with lines.  Pencils have to be 2B, any lighter and the mark is not dark enough.  If I’m using pencil I’ll have a handful ready in a mug on top of my desk so that I don’t have to sharpen them.  I often use pens and then it has to be a fountain pen or a fine fibre-tip.  Only black is acceptable.

All this is in my mind at the moment because I have just had my mother’s old Parker Pen serviced with It’s fifty years old with a gold nib that is as smooth as silk to use.

Perhaps more importantly is the image I have of my mother’s hands using it to write.  She was an artist so she lived through her hands and eyes (she drew the teazel at the head of this blog).  Her fingers were exceptionally strong, long, pale and blotched with freckles.  Her thumbs were almost deformed; squat and broad with a short wide nail that only reached as far as her first set of boney knuckles.  She was keen on gold, she wore two bangles that clanked together and a large topaz ring the size of a dog’s tooth.  In her other hand she held a cigarette or a whiskey and soda.

Now my mother is gone and I just have the pen.  But I’m superstitious.  This pen is my mascot.  It’s going to be as lucky for me as a rabbit’s paw.  With this pen I’m going to write good stuff and something of my Mum’s fierce spirit will seep into the ink that flows from it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In the shadows of great men

A couple of weeks ago I went to see a 22 year old Korean pianist called Sunwook Kim.  There were about 200 people in the audience, mostly grey haired and all very knowledgeable about music.  The man next door to me said his mother had been a concert pianist and I recognised at least three local music teachers.  I opened the programme happily but my anticipation began to evaporate when I saw he was going to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.  I like Beethoven and  I particularly like the Moonlight Sonata but I don’t like going to hear very well known pieces live.  The music tends to roll out as mechanically as one of those toy music barrels, both the audience and the performer know the music too well to be able to listen to it interrogatively or play it with enough freshness. Too often it becomes like relaxing into a musical armchair and I’d rather do that at home.

I needn’t have worried, Sunwook Kim was extraordinary.  The music and his playing had us holding our breath.  My neighbour was in tears and several members of the audience rose to their feet and cheered.  That doesn’t happen very often in rural East Sussex.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I talked to an old friend who is writing a memoir of St Petersburg.  It sounds like it’s very good but she’s worried about it.  ”The problem about St Petersburg is that everyone has read about it before, it’s too full of ghosts.”  My first novel, Sam Golod ( was set in St Petersburg so I knew exactly where she was coming from.  It’s very hard indeed to write in the shadow of great names and there aren’t many names greater than Dostoevsky.

The hero of the book I am currently writing is a very well known historical and mythical figure and I find it a struggle to put blood in his veins, bones in his legs and make him real.  There are two temptations; the first is to succumb to the myth and give my readers what they are already anticipating and the second temptation is to change the facts so that he is no longer recognizable and then create him anew.  The first seems lazy and dull and the second seems a bit pointless; why write about a well known figure if you are going to change him so much that he’s really a different person altogether?

My friend in St Petersburg is eating into her shadows by interviewing inhabitants of the city and survivors of it’s terrible history and letting their voices speak for themselves.  I’m trying a similar trick by collecting as much historical evidence as I can for my hero and then imagining myself into his skin and seeing what he says.   We shall see how it turns out but cross your fingers that my friend and I succeed with even a small fraction of the skill and beauty of Sunwook Kim.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Just another day

Today is Armistice Day and millions of people will be wearing red paper poppies and observing a silence at 11:00 to remember the soldiers who have died in recent wars.  I’ts also Martinmass and if you had lived six or seven hundred years ago you would have been slaughtering the livestock that you couldn’t afford to keep through the winter and lighting big bonfires and your best candles as a defence against the darkness and the night.  Martinmass was the last big feast before Advent, the month of plain potage diet that preceded Christmas.

I’ve just finished reading David Nicholl’s “One Day”.  At the beginning of the last section he uses a wonderful quote from Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy:-

She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year; …her own birthday; and every other day individualized by incidents in which she had taken some share.  She suddenly thought one afternoon, when looking in the glass at her fairness, that there was yet another date, of greater importance to her than those; that of her own death, when all these charms would have disappeared; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there.  When was it?

One of the most striking differences between our world and the mediaeval one is just how many feast days and saints days there were.  Our mediaeval predecessors, recognized Tess’s dilemma and would, I think, have pondered their death days on All Hallow’s Eve. Mediaeval lives may have been brutal and short but they understood exactly how to celebrate; Michaelmas, Lady Day, MidSummer’s Eve, St Crispin’s Day, All Souls, Corpus Christi… the list was very long and covered a huge range of human emotions.  I think they understood something that we have let slip.  Anchoring our experiences to a specific feast, ceremony or ritual helps us to understand and make sense of our life.

As a child I minded very much about my birthday and I used to feel sick with the excitement and anticipation of Christmas counted down by the windows of my Advent Calendar.  Recently I have discovered that I mind just as much about sad anniversaries as well.  For the year after my Father’s death I didn’t know what the exact date of his death had been.  At the time I was simply too miserable and confused to note it down.  To begin with that didn’t seem to matter but as autumn came around again I got increasingly agitated by the idea that I might pass through the day without realising or marking it in anyway.  That seemed very dreadful and I found that it was important to know the exact date so that I could have a focus and anchor for my grief.  So last Friday while you were all burning Guys on top of bonfires I lit a candle and had a private feast of Turkish Delight in memory of my dear Dad and wondered if he too was watching the fireworks.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Which comes first Culture or Lunch?

I’ve just had a lovely holiday in Slovenia.  I didn’t know a lot about the country before I went so I read all the descriptions I could find.  They all had the same theme: ‘Europe in your pocket’, ‘where the best of Italy meets the best of Germany’, ‘a combination of the Mediterranean and Mittel Europa’.  It sounded intriguing but it was hard to imagine.  I set off on my holiday curious but with no very clear image of where I was going.

We had a great time.  On the coast we ate pasta and black truffles in the warm sunshine of a square staked to the Gulf of Trieste by a brick campanile. We trekked around the mountains and ate bowls of wild mushroom soup next to a ceramic stove in a room shadowed by huge Alpine eaves and then we went back to the capital Ljubljana and drank coffee with forkfuls of apple and poppyseed strudel in a cafe with spindly chairs.

I didn’t get to know Slovenia very well (I was only there for a week) but I did soon get a sense of what those descriptions had been getting at.  The trouble was that the descriptions were abstractions and what I experienced was food and buildings and landscape.  Our first experiences of a culture are physical.  When we go to a strange place we eat food and sleep in buildings, it is only later that we get to know a place well enough to talk to the people and get an idea of their history, art and politics.  But when we describe a place we tend to do it the other way around, we start with the culture and only then do we start talking about the architecture and the food.

It’s a big note to the writer in me, remember to describe lunch – because, when we experience life, it is lunch that comes first.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mixing Writing with Real Life

I’ve come back to writing fiction after ten years of editing and lecturing.  A lot has changed in those ten years and the way I write is now very different. I plan my work carefully and I research it more thoroughly.  When I sit down in the morning I have a much stronger idea of what I want to say.  I still find myself padding around my study looking for the courage to pick up my pencil but that settling in time probably takes about 30 minutes when it used to take hours.

Admittedly I am ten years older but a lot of the change is because I only have a fraction of the time I used to.  In the good old days I would save up my money and then rent an out-of-season holiday cottage somewhere suitably remote and write manically for a couple of months until I had finished a draft or the isolation got too much for me.

It was a romantic way of working but its not a regime you can combine with a husband, a dog and two children.  Now I write in the morning after school drop off, do the household chores after lunch and rush to pick up the children at 3.15pm.  I have so many more distractions that I have to be more focussed and disciplined and make sure the time I have is used for writing and writing alone.

The big question is whether the quality of my writing suffers and I think I can honestly say it doesn’t and if anything it has got a little better.  So was I wasting my time before?  Well, no I don’t think I was.  I needed it then but I don’t now.  As my mother used to say ‘If you want something done, give it to someone who’s busy.’

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Outlaw in every Writer

I have just been reading about outlaws and how we oscillate between admiring them and fearing or pitying them.  Before the Norman conquest Outlaws were sad, lonely souls lost like wild beasts in the dark woods outside of a society where everyone was tightly linked to their neighbours by bonds of obligation and loyalty.

The age of Robin Hood and the superstar Outlaws came later. These bands of thieves and murderers were simultaneously feared for their violence and admired for their resistance against greedy Lords and unjust laws.  We still have that double vision.  Outlawry is an irregular verb.  I am fighting tyranny , you are terrorists and they are the Taliban.

Outlaws, mediaeval or contemporary, fight for a world in which they are the new Lord of the Manor and they can put the world to rights. In every outlaw there is a man or woman who both struggles to be the government at the same time as using the freedom from responsibility of life outside the law.

I think there is a little bit of this tension in every writer’s mind.  We want to be outsiders because then we have the freedom to criticize and carp and fantasize about how much better it could be.  At the same time we desperately want to be in the centre of things, in the know and with the sales and power over other writers that goes with it. We say that power is so corrupt but we really want to taste it all the same. There is a little bit of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham in all of us.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment