Category Archives: paintings

Experiments in crime

There was a piece by Tim Lott in the Guardian recently in which he argued that in Britain at least ‘the form of storytelling and literary novel writing has become largely divorced’. How needlessly reductive can you get?  His argument seemed to me like a variation on the often rehearsed and entirely fake battle between genre fiction and so-called litfic, a ridiculous distraction from the job of proper criticism.

Writing is a peculiar business, and one aspect of writing that is rarely acknowledged is the fact that most writers have little control over what kind of writer they are. You are pulled inexorably, often mercilessly, in a certain direction. The writer of ‘literary fiction’ is no more necessarily an Oxbridge snob than the writer of popular spy thrillers is a money-hoovering philistine. The most successful bestsellers are written because the author loves and understands the form and wants to communicate their excitement to readers. Those writers who find themselves more drawn to exploring language are no different from the painters who, in the 1890s, began exploring the possibilities of paint itself – the medium, not the message. The work of Monet and even Cezanne hardly seems revolutionary to us now – we have absorbed it into our iconography, our collective understanding of what representational art can reach for and achieve. Fifty years later Krasner and Pollock, Frankenthaler and Motherwell would stretch the point further, doing away with representation almost entirely. Similarly, the paintings that outraged a generation of critics now adorn our coffee mugs and supper trays. We get it.

Writers write what they can and what they must. To insist that writing – arguably the most malleable of art forms – should universally strive for the ideals upheld by work that was no longer new even a century ago is just so much bunkum, just as it is bunkum to suggest that British literary fiction has ‘lost the plot’. Lott rightly cites Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (American, you see) as one of those works that appeal equally across supposed literary and commercial divides. I would raise him Barbara Vine’s Asta’s Book, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood, Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, Ali Smith’s The Accidental, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project.  Some of these titles you will recognise from recent Booker shortlists. Many of them use elements of the thriller, detective fiction, horror fiction, science fiction to achieve their effects. All have propulsive plot lines. All reward a second, even a third reading.

Books, books, books. So much to read, so little time to waste arguing over what, exactly, writers should be writing. Lott would surely concede that the most interesting and rewarding works are to be found precisely at the margins of genre, where our expectations can be subverted and yet where – yes – we can continue enjoying the ideas and tropes of those stories and narrative archetypes that resonate with us most strongly. Yes, we are all still campfire dwellers. That does not mean we don’t enjoy it when the bard from another village wanders across to inform us we don’t know jack, that it’s really this story we should be listening to and so sit the hell down…

More interesting by far than Lott’s boringly prescriptive essay is Tony White’s choice of his Top Ten Experimental Thrillers, a piece that delves deep into why it is that we enjoy thrillers (I reckon Gertrude Stein for one would act pretty swiftly in calling out those who accuse crime writers of slumming it), as well as the ways in which detective fiction – perhaps the most enduringly popular of all literary genres – can still surprise us. Of course, any future ‘top ten’ list of postmodern crime fiction would have to include White’s own new novel, The Fountain in the Forest, which exemplifies his thesis pretty much perfectly, as well as killing Lott’s theory about British literary writing’s plotlessness stone dead.

By Lott’s reckoning, White’s interest in and practice of OULIPO techniques would place him firmly in the discredited ‘literary’ camp – read confusingly esoteric non-narrative with a snobbish insistence on obscurity – yet The Fountain in the Forest can be read with all the pleasure you might expect from a knotty police procedural, a knowledgeably detailed, intriguing and compelling police procedural at that. The story drives ever forward, even when it takes you backwards in time to take a look at the roots of the crime in question. Even when it flip-flops between two distinct time-streams and character identities within the space of a single sentence, the sense throughout is of a steady and satisfying accretion of significant information, i.e clues – exactly what you’d hope for from any good thriller.

The OULIPO stuff – elaborated upon in detail by White in his Afterword – is as significant to the narrative as you want to make it. You could read the novel with no knowledge of OULIPO and enjoy it just as well. Yet for those who feel like delving deeper, an examination of White’s methods and motives will reveal new layers, extra nuances and a background atmosphere that lends the novel an added eeriness and potency.

Anyone who enjoyed Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child or Nicholas Royle’s First Novel will love this book. Anyone who is into Ian Rankin or Denise Mina will love it, too.

For me, The Fountain in the Forest has been made especially enjoyable through a web of strange coincidences that seem none the less prescient for that: my own concerns over the gentrification of London, obscure parts of Exeter that I happen to know well, a string of places in the south of France that mark significant childhood memories, even salt-glazed ceramics – it’s all stuff from my own life, stuff I recognise and might write about. To find it turning up randomly and all together in someone else’s novel is a delightful surprise. And weird.

Above all, there is the joy inherent in a book well made: language expertly deployed, place wonderfully evoked, ideas, characters, memories, theories, political subtext brought vibrantly to life, a good story well told. The Fountain in the Forest would be a worthy contender for the CWA Gold Dagger. It is equally the kind of book that might win the Goldsmiths Prize. Read, and enjoy.

Memory Palace and other stories

“At the moment we seem to be in a place with narrative fiction where there are people quite happy to write very straight-up nineteenth century realist stuff and people who want to play Derridean language games exploring textuality. I would like to say that there is a third interesting thing that fiction writers can do, which is to take on, in a speculative realist way, scientific ideas about the self and to engage with social complexity: how memory constitutes itself. So for all these reasons thinking about the self is important to me.”

(Hari Kunzru, in an interview with 3am Magazine)

We were at the V&A on Friday, attending the exhibition of graphic arts, installation and text entitled Memory Palace, based around the 10,000-word novella of the same name by Hari Kunzru. The exhibition is something of a new concept. Instead of working with a pre-existing text, the expo’s curators, Laurie Britton Newall and Ligaya Salazar, commissioned Kunzru to write an original work, knowing from the outset that it was to form the basis of a collaboration between one writer and 20 visual artists. (The curators explain more about this process in an essay here.)

I’ve been keen to catch up with Kunzru’s fiction for quite some time now. I’ve read his journalistic non-fiction with great pleasure, and his novels come highly recommended by critics I trust. Also, Kunzru has a refreshingly open and constructive attitude to science fiction, a fact readily apparent from this piece he wrote about Michael Moorcock for The Guardian in 2011. As explicitly full-on SF, his novella ‘Memory Palace’ seemed the ideal place to start and I was keen to visit the expo. I purchased the book more than a month ago in readiness, but due to an insanely expanding list of reading commitments I found the day of our trip to the V&A dawning with the novella still unread.

As it turned out, this was a good thing, because it meant I finished reading the text just shy of London Bridge, and stepped into the world of the exhibition just a short while later with Kunzru’s story still headily intact in my mind. In this state of full receptiveness, the exhibits seemed like a natural extension of what I’d just read, a logical enhancement of the experience. The quality of the graphic art was superlative. That the artists involved in the project were excited and inspired by Kunzru’s words – that they found them relevant and provoking and significant in their own lives – was movingly apparent in every piece on show. The work was also very beautiful. ‘Memory Palace’ shows us a radically unpleasant, dangerous and intensely possible-seeming vision of the future – yet, tellingly, the overall sensation evoked by this exhibit is one of warmth and great humanity.

This exhibition has clearly made a big impression on people. Looking at the online write-ups though, the thing that strikes me is how little direct commentary there has been on the full text of Kunzru’s story itself. There seems to be a tacit acceptance of the curators’ assertion that ‘print … is losing its dominance as a deliverer of the written word’, that Memory Palace the exhibition – ‘a physically immersive illustrated story that explores the idea of an exhibition as a walk-in book’ – is in its way the determining experience, more complex and more complete than ‘Memory Palace’ the story that inspired it.

Personally, I would have to disagree. I loved the exhibition – but I know that I will remember it chiefly as a very beautiful illustration of Kunzru’s text. Walking among the exhibits was inspiring and exciting – but as an intellectual and creative experience it could not compare even remotely with my private, concentrated reading of Kunzru’s story as we rushed towards an early draft of the London he seemed to be describing.

For me, words on a page are still the most immersive and interactive of all media. Best of all, you don’t need a machine or even a power source to get involved with them – they can be produced and explored and made to shimmer by anyone armed with a pencil and a scrap of paper. Print losing its dominance as a deliverer of the written word? I have yet to be convinced, I’m afraid.

‘Memory Palace’ is set in London 500 years in the future. An electromagnetic event of seismic proportions has destroyed our digital present, plunging the world into a new version of the Dark Ages. London is ruled by the ‘Thing’, a class of warriors convinced that mankind’s only salvation lies in a return to the Edenic state. Technology is outlawed. The act of remembering is banned. As a member of a secret organization of ‘memorialists’, the narrator of ‘Memory Palace’ sits in prison awaiting interrogation. He believes it all but inevitable that his time in prison will end with his execution.

The table, the bed, the rivets in the metal door – nothing about this cell is specific. None of it carries a trace. I could be anywhere, at any time in history; there have always been places like this. One thing I know: the blankness is not an accident. It is the meaning of my cell, the message my captors want to convey to me. (p25)

‘Memory Palace’, with its taut, intense interchanges between prisoner and captor, instantly evokes memories of allied texts – Winston Smith’s conversations with O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984, Montag’s journey from law-enforcer to law-breaker in Fahrenheit 451, Ivan’s story of The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov – but in the power of its imagery, its elastically ironical, quicksand-silver use of language and the strength and originality of its London writing, this story gains through these resonances and is an essential and honourable addition to the core canon of science fictional dystopia. I tend to have a very physical reaction to writing I believe to be good, to be the real thing – and reading ‘Memory Palace’ made my heart rate increase, my breath quicken. To see a writer so perfectly achieve what he set out to do, to do it beautifully and with such conviction, is the greatest inspiration another writer could ask for.

I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone to buy the book and read this story. I would also encourage those who do read this story and like it to remember to include it on their SF awards nominations ballots for 2014. There are always a good few complaints during awards season about the poor quality of short fiction available for nomination. There are plenty of private moments when I find myself thinking people don’t complain enough – but as with all categories, the quality work is out there, you just have to look for it, sometimes outside of the more obvious venues. I’ve already highlighted stories by Sofia Samatar, Elizabeth Knox and M. John Harrison (if you haven’t bought and read ‘Cave & Julia’ already, then do so NOW) as shining examples of stories that deserve support and recognition. Kunzru’s ‘Memory Palace’ is another, the kind of story I envy for its grace, its articulacy, its passion, both for the subject in hand and for the words used to explore it. This is the kind of SF I want to be reading – and to be writing.

(A quick afterword on the physical book. If you can’t get to London to see the exhibition itself, don’t worry, because Memory Palace the book is a stunningly lovely and readily portable version of many of the things you would see at the V&A, the exhibition in your pocket, as it were. It contains high quality reproductions of many of the graphic works, together witb preliminary sketches for the installations. Most importantly it contains the full text of ‘Memory Palace’ – the one thing the exhibition could not practically contain, but that is the rationale and pivotal component of the entire enterprise.)

Essex magic

We spent the weekend in rural Essex, attending an evening of Magic at the Barn organized by Oliver Tabor and revisiting the compelling and luminous landscapes of the Blackwater Estuary.

Bradwell Waterside

The magic was pretty amazing. It was wonderful to see Oliver again, and I defy anyone not to be enchanted by a theatre masquerading as a 17th century red brick barn (or is it the other way around..?) – but for me there’s magic in the landscape itself. a unique kind of stillness, of apartness, intensified and redoubled when you realise how untouched this part of the country still is, in spite of its proximity to London and the ever-expanding suburban sprawl that is thrown up, like a concrete worm cast, in the wake of the M25.

On the days we were there, the land was all mirror-brightness, all strange solitude. I can’t be in that place without thinking about ‘The Muse of Copenhagen’, which is set on the Blackwater, about Johnny, and Southshore, those lucent, spellbound summers you want never to end.

We drove also to Leigh-on-Sea, to visit the birthplace of John Fowles in Fillibrook Avenue, which immediately made me want to read all of Fowles again. We had coffee in Old Leigh, where we were lucky enough to visit the studio of Sheila Appleton, an artist now in her eighties who has been painting Leigh and its environs since she was seventeen years old. Sheila’s paintings and drawings are striking, full of force, and replete with an intense and personal understanding of their subject matter. It was an immense privilege to see her workplace, to listen to her talk about the landscape that has provided her lifetime’s inspiration.

I absolutely intend to set another story here.

Leigh-on-Sea, by Sheila Appleton


The new Jerwood Gallery, Hastings opened today. A couple of months later than originally planned, but so very much worth the wait, and finally the town has a space, a place for people to come to and be inspired by that reflects the creative spirit that is alive here.

Hastings is an odd place. Oddly special, oddly neglected, oddly itself. It worms its way into your thinking. I grew up mostly in rural West Sussex, had a grandmother in Worthing, and the particular flavour, both architectural and psychological, of English seaside resorts has become a central strand in my writing. But East Sussex is not like West Sussex. It’s weirder, more remote. There are fewer people, fewer main roads. The sizeable tract of land – cliff path and marshland and levels – east of Hastings is the last stretch of unspoiled coastline in the whole of Sussex.

Chris said something interesting today, that Hastings has sat so long in the shadow of 1066 that people have come to believe that’s all there is to the place. What’s almost never talked about outside the town itself is the extraordinary number of artists and writers who have a connection to Hastings and its environs. Attracted by low property prices, a mild climate and a rare abundance of natural beauty and historical detailing, artists and writers come here for a while and end up staying.

It’s a strange place. There’s something about it, a secret undercurrent of self awareness that hovers uncertainly between the numinous and the uncanny. The Stade, where the new Jerwood gallery stands, is itself an oddity, the last working fishing beach in England where the fishermen drag their craft out to sea manually straight off the shingle, a jumble of boats and shacks and net shops and rusting machinery that sets the writer’s pulse racing just to look at it, the most evocative of locations, a fully functioning quotidian reality that is at the same time a storehouse of the symbolic and the imagined.

To the north of the Stade are the cliffs. Between the cliffs and the Stade stands the Jerwood, a window on and a showcase for both realities.

It’s a beautiful building. Formal yet intimate, striking yet able to blend in so perfectly with its surroundings it’s difficult to believe it’s not been there for years. And inside – it’s a treasure house. Walking around the galleries – warm with wood, bright with glass, so full of light and at the same time almost cosy – I found myself close to tears. I’ve rarely if ever visited an art space so obviously designed with the pleasure of the visitor in mind, not just those consummately at home with art but those – and as word begins to spread about the Jerwood I feel sure there will be many – who are dipping their toe in that ocean for what might be the first time.

I’ve visited and enjoyed the Towner in Eastbourne, the Turner in Margate, the Delawarr in Bexhill. I love what’s being done to promote the arts in Folkestone, a town I’m extremely fond of. But what’s different about Jerwood is that this fine new gallery is to serve as the permanent home for the Foundation’s own collection, which is as good a survey of British 20th and 21st century painting as you’ll find anywhere in the country, including London. There are rooms full of the paintings I love – paintings I recognise instantly by their colour and texture, the way the paint has been arranged on the canvas, even before I’ve fully focussed on what is being depicted, as the work of old friends. Keith Vaughan, Ivon Hitchens, John Craxton, Carel Weight – all specialists (horribly underappreciated) in what you might call the mystical landscape, and all particularly loved by me for many years. There’s a wonderful portrait by Stanley Spencer of his niece, Daphne with a Green Scarf. There’s a gorgeous, sunny Christopher Wood, The Bather, a woman surrounded by shells who just might be a selky. Almost in front of you as you enter the galleries hangs a stunning Prunella Clough (I’m obsessed with Clough, she quite literally spent most of her career painting rubbish: street detritus, the scattered contents of pockets and waste bins), a dozen shades of grey and dirt with a characteristic shimmer of pink, a dropped sweet wrapper perhaps, towards the upper right corner.

There’s one of Winifred Nicholson’s rare portraits, painted in the 1920s when she was still married to Ben Nicholson. It’s as luminous as her later, almost abstract still lifes.

There’s a John Bratby – he lived in Hastings, had a fascinating and slightly sinister house here, which Chris showed me last year – and an Edmund Burra, an artist I always associate with London because of his Soho paintings but who, I discover today, was born in Rye and, like Bratby, died in Hastings.

There is more, a lot more. The place was packed. The whole thing is marvellous.

I knew that Hastings was beginning to work for me when I started to write about it. My new book has a lot of London in it, but it is also permeated, wormholed by the raddled strangeness of Hastings. The two central sections are set here. The town’s steep inclines and ragged edges characterise it, leave their scars in the minds and memories of its characters. It’s kind of a Hastings book. Weird but true.

I’m happy to report that the novel now stands at 78,000 words in first draft. Not quite sure how that happened, but I’m relieved that it has. Another 20,000 to write, give or take, and then I can begin on the second draft. I’m looking forward to that, very much. I know so much more about the book now than I did at the start.

And I know that the cafe terrace of the Jerwood, directly overlooking the Stade, will be the perfect place to sit and untangle all those final, crucial details.