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Back to Blighty

That is one long flight.

Including the initial ‘hop’ from Launceston back to Sydney, I spent all of Friday and part of Saturday in the air, basically, and in spite of it offering the more or less unique opportunity to see Sydney Harbour Bridge and the blazing lights of Singapore from the air that is not an experience I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone.

But what a trip.

The past three weeks have been inspiring and transformative in a multitude of ways. The chance to begin to know Australia and specifically Tasmania feels no less important to me and to my writing than the months I spent in Russia in the late 1980s – although of course the two experiences could hardly have been more different. It’s hard to sum up my thoughts in any coherent way here – I’m still very much in the process of absorbing what I’ve seen – but I will say that I feel so lucky to have visited Australia at what feels like precisely the right time for me, a time when particular sets of ideas and imagery have been recurring and expanding, needing a setting and a context that Tasmania’s spaces and history have allowed me to imagine.

I did try to blog – just once – from Cradle Mountain, where there was no phone signal but (bizarrely) there was WiFi. Sadly that WiFi was too erratic to deal with much, so I gave up on it. I made notes though – loads of notes – and the ideas for a story I’ve been wanting to write have coalesced and strengthened. It’ll be a while before this work sees the light of day – there are other things in the queue ahead of it, and in any case, the process of reading and thinking and storymaking is only just beginning – but I hope that when I’m eventually ready to write it, this (novel?) will recapture and shape and quantify at least a small part of what my time in Tasmania has given me.

It would be impossible to name everyone individually who helped to make the trip so memorable and so marvellous – there are many whose names we never even learned – but it would be wrong to end this post without thanking the people of Tasmania generally, some of the friendliest I’ve ever met, whose openness, welcoming attitude and lively engagement with and commitment to their landscape, heritage, and natural and social history I found liberating and life-changing.

My mum has all the best photos – she’s a better photographer than I am, which makes me a lazy and inconsistent one – so I might post some of hers when she gets around to emailing them across. In the meantime, here are just a few I have here on my hard drive.

'Matrix' waterfall, Sydney (photo by Peter Allan)

On Bondi Beach (photo by Peter Allan)

Descending from Marion's Lookout, Cradle Mountain National Park

Button Grass and Snow Gum

Cradle

Hazard's Beach

The Nile Chapel, Deddington

Old house, Deddington

Cataract Gorge, Launceston

 

 

 

Nina’s Crime Blog #5

The Lighthouse by P.D. James

I’ve just returned from a long weekend in Cornwall, visiting my mother and doing the kind of things I always look forward to during those visits – touring around the Lizard and Penwith peninsulas, checking out the latest art exhibitions. We were lucky with the weather and it was an invigorating, inspiring few days all round. Something else I look forward to when I visit Cornwall is the train journey. It takes eight hours, pretty much, door to door, which makes it a bit of a long haul. The upside, of course, is that there’s nothing else to do during those hours but read.

I took two new SF novels with me. Both have been enthusiastically received, both look set to feature on awards shortlists in 2014. I found myself crushingly disappointed with both. I’ll have more specific things to say around Clarke time, no doubt, but for now I’ll summarize by saying that I found the first of these novels to be an accomplished and committed piece of work but not nearly as original as it thought it was. In the end, for me, it proved too shallow for its subject matter, all shiny surfaces and no characterisation. The second, whilst straining hard for Le Guinian reach and strength of purpose, struggled to come even close to Le Guin’s achievement, stylistically or intellectually. Reading it felt to me like being trapped inside one of the more interminable episodes of original Star Trek. One long infodump, once again zero characterisation, and tedious with it.

Have we lived and fought in vain, I grumbled to myself as The Cornishman finally pulled into Truro station. But the horror was not over. I looked forward to selecting something more inspiring to read from my mother’s shelves, but here also I would find myself thwarted. My mother is an eclectic and avid reader, but unlike me she is a convert to the Kindle. As she now does most of her novel-reading onscreen, the space given over to fiction on her bookshelves is decreasing. I couldn’t face Anita Brookner and I’d read all the E. M. Forsters, and so it was that I ended up choosing a 2005 novel by P. D. James, The Lighthouse. I could cover it for my crime blog, I thought, and by happy coincidence it turned out to be set in Cornwall.

I read a lot of P. D. James in my twenties, and enjoyed her a lot. In my memory, those novels of hers I liked best – Devices and Desires, The Black Tower, A Taste for Death, The Skull Beneath the Skin and especially the non-series Innocent Blood – had been meaty psychological studies tending towards weirdness and satisfyingly heavy on sense of place. I was curious to see how I might find her now. It had been well over a decade since I last picked up a PDJ, and I read differently now in any case. Everything I read, I read as a writer. I am looking for different things. I am definitely more critical, less easily satisfied.

The God of Bad Books clearly had it in for me this weekend, because reading The Lighthouse was not an edifying experience. The story, as in all country house murder mysteries and their many variants, is a simple one and none the worse for that: a famous writer, Nathan Oliver, goes missing on the exclusive Cornish island-retreat of Combe. Shortly afterwards he is found dead. Is it suicide, or murder? Inspector Adam Dalgleish and two more junior officers are summoned to find out. The small cast of suspects are introduced and questioned in the traditional way. More trouble ensues as old eminities are uncovered and the case is further complicated when Dalgleish suddenly goes down with SARS. This plot development in particular comes across as contrived and banal – three guesses which ‘superbug’ was hitting the headlines when James was writing this one. Rifling current news stories is always a risk for a writer – one wrong move and your book will appear catastrophically dated almost before it is published. P. D. James’s SARS subplot falls harder than a lead balloon. Sadly this is not the only problem with this novel.

As I recall it was PDJ herself who compared the country house murder mystery with the poetic form of the sonnet: far from being restrictive, having to adhere to a recognised plot structure is actually freeing and no bar to originality, no matter how many other writers have been there before you. I have no problem with that idea – you only have to consider the infinite possible variations of a 12-bar blues to see the truth in it.

But when a writer gets lazy, problems begin. James does not so much create a variation upon a theme as present us with another tired repetition of that theme,  using masses of extraneous detail as a mask for clunky writing. We go along with it because we love the idea of the story and because we want to know what happens. Even when PDJ presented me with a completely redundant 30-page prologue (in which Dalgleish and his officers are (re)introduced and the scene set, all information I would encounter again in the following pages) I still wanted to know what happened. Two hundred pages and many needless repetitions, embarrassing passages of dialogue and teeth-grittingly out-of-touch social observations later I felt angry with and embarrassed for the writer and desperate to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible.

I had a similar experience recently when reading Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur, coincidentally also first published in 2005. I love Vine’s earlier novels – they’re richly observed, compelling, suspenseful, enviably fine work. But this one just seemed… half cock. The crises seemed false, the characters misjudged, and the moral climate inextricably and inappropriately immured in the 1950s. Thus in The Lighthouse we have PDJ attempting to bring her narrative up to date in small and largely insignificant ways – Dalgleish writes his reports on a laptop, people communicate using mobile phones – whilst failing utterly in terms of the overall ambience. Characters make reference to contemporary novels and television programmes, the author is not shy of dating her narrative specifically in the early 2000s – and yet this is still a world of butlers, boarding schools and housekeepers, of burning shame over illegitimate parentage, of adult offspring unconvincingly in thrall to despotic fathers. James speaks of ‘the race warriors’ and ‘the animal rights people’ in bland and occasionally offensive terms of received opinion rather than personal passion and one cannot escape the feeling that these were subjects she thought she ‘ought’ to include rather than issues she actually wanted to write about. I don’t even want to talk about her cringe-inducing characterisation of Emma Lavenham’s (lesbian) college friend, and I found her attempts to convey street vernacular particularly horrible. Here’s eighteen-year-old Millie, a runaway from Peckham who is treated by the rest of the assembled cast as if she were still in nappies, vehemently countering insinuations that the murder victim might have been interested in her sexually:

“That’s disgusting. Course he didn’t. He’s old. He’s older than Mr Maycroft. It’s gross. It wasn’t like that. He never touched me. You saying he was a perv or something? You saying he was a paedo?” (p235)

This might not be so bad, were it not for the fact that Millie alone is presumed to speak in this way, while everyone else, regardless of age or gender, continues to hold forth in the same pompous brand of BBC English like characters from Brief Encounter. Dalgleish’s deputy Kate Miskin is not that much older than Millie, yet her dialogue makes her sound like the headmistress of a pre-war girls’ grammar school:

“The vestments when finished must be heavy and valuable. How do you get them to the recipients?” (p312)

I don’t think I’d be alone in finding something of a credibility gap here.

There is a perfectly good story hidden at the heart of The Lighthouse, but the novel as it stands is not it. It’s careless, misjudged, cumbersome, and stuffed with unnecessary padding. It’s awful to see James struggling to make her work appear more socially ‘relevant’. Literary ventriloquism of this kind is invariably a mistake – James would do far better taking the time and trouble to write in her own voice, on subjects and about characters that genuinely inspire her.

It’s disturbing to note that if this were a first novel by an unknown writer, such bum notes would see it laughed out of court. (See Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo for a still more egregious example of unearned approbation.) No writer should rest on her laurels, no matter how verdant. I admire P. D. James greatly for the determination she demonstrated in becoming a writer in the first place, for her tenacity and commitment, for the continuing pleasure she clearly takes in what she does. I only wish I could admire her actual writing more than I do.

The Bowl of Cthulhu, by Monica Allan

Cottages, St Just

The Pier, Porthleven

Buildings, St Keverne

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

Paris in the Spring

We’ve just returned from Paris, where I’ve spent the last couple of days meeting the press and having my photo taken as part of the run-up to the publication of the French edition of The Silver Wind at the end of August. I’ve just this morning received my author copies of the book – entitled Complications in French – and I for one think it looks fantastic. The cover design couldn’t be more beautiful or more appropriate!

And the initial response to the book has been overwhelming. I gave four in-depth interviews to four highly competent journalists – Christine Marcandier of Mediapart, Macha Sery of Le Monde, Frederique Roussel of Liberation, and Clementine Godszal of Les Inrockuptibles – all of whom had not only read the book very closely, but had interesting and insightful things to say and ask about it, too. I was blown away by their natural enthusiasm for speculative fiction in general and for Complications in particular. The experience of meeting and talking to them was deeply energizing.

Complications is being published by Editions Tristram, an independent imprint founded in 1988 by Jean-Hubert Gailliot under the slogan: ‘What changes literature is literature itself’. The people who run Tristram are in love with books and with ideas. They quite clearly see it as their mission to seek out and promote the work of writers who come at things from a different angle, who work at the boundaries of genre, who produce work that is an individual expression of an original or contrary worldview. To say that I am thrilled to be associated with them is an understatement, and when you look at their catalogue – which includes work by J. G. Ballard, Joyce Carol Oates, Arno Schmidt, Pierre Bourgeade and Patti Smith – you will very quickly understand why.

In the Cafe Les Editeurs, with Sylvie Martigny and Jean-Hubert Gailliot of Editions Tristram

While in Paris, Chris and I had the additional thrill of staying in the hotel La Louisiane on the Rue de Seine. Situated just a minute’s walk from the Boulevard Saint-Germain, this historic building has played host to many artists, musicians and writers – John Coltrane and Miles Davis, de Beauvoir and Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller to name just a few. (How amazing is that?? I’m still having difficulty taking it all in, to be honest. I was particularly thrilled to discover that in more recent times the hotel has also been the preferred Parisian overnight resting place of Quentin Tarantino… )

Finally though, I really must say a few words about my amazing translator, Bernard Sigaud. With translations of works by J. G. Ballard, M. John Harrison and Paul McAuley (among many others) in his portfolio, Bernard is no stranger to the world of British science fiction. His first encounter with my work came through reading my story ‘Microcosmos’ in Interzone, and it was Bernard who brought The Silver Wind to the attention of Editions Tristram in the first place. Without Bernard and his tireless enthusiasm for speculative fiction, this project would not be happening, and I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. French readers might notice also that Complications has more pages than The Silver Wind, and this is because it contains an extra story. Here again it was Bernard who became interested in the peculiar sideways connections between my story ‘Darkroom’, first published in Elastic Press’s Subtle Edens anthology, and the stories that make up the original English edition of The Silver Wind.  When he emailed and asked me if ‘Darkroom’ might be included in the French edition I was happy enough to agree, but also surprised. It is true that I wrote ‘Darkroom’ while I was working on the other ‘Martin stories’, so I knew some material was likely to have seeped across. But it was only this last week, when I reread all the stories in preparation for the Paris trip, that I fully appreciated the wisdom and happy insight of Bernard’s idea. The connections between the stories are tight, and strange, and illuminating. I’m delighted to see ‘Chambre Noire’ lead off this wonderful venture, and pleased with the thought that future French readers of my work will be getting something a little different, something new.

With Clementine Godszal, Cafe de Flore

'Say cheese..!' Having my photo taken in Cafe de Flore

How time flies at Cafe Les Editeurs - all photos by Chris Priest

‘…running wildly into Woking.’

Yesterday we went to Woking. Not the most adventurous of day trips on the face of it, but exciting to us, nonetheless. There’s H. G. Wells, for a start. Wells moved to Woking in 1895, the same year The Time Machine was published. He went on to write the three further ‘scientific romances’ that make up the core of his science fiction output in the house he shared with his wife Amy at 143 Maybury Road.

The most famous of these is of course The War of the Worlds, published in 1898 and set in and around Woking, with particular reference to nearby Horsell Common, which is where Wells had his Martians make their landing. I always enjoy visiting sites of special literary interest, and wandering around in the sandpits of Horsell Common was a genuine thrill. Surrey is hopelessly changed now from when Wells lived there, of course – but the peace and beauty of Horsell Common remain. Standing in the dappled sunlight between the trees, it’s still possible to get a sense of the shock and wonder Wells surely aimed to generate by setting his novel of alien invasion here, and our visit to the Common has made this landmark work come newly alive for me. I also greatly enjoyed seeing the ‘Woking Martian’ sculpture by Michael Condron in Woking town centre. It’s a work of great beauty and elegance, and for me it seemed to capture the spirit and the imaginative world of Well’s novel perfectly.

Our main reason for visiting Woking yesterday though was this little chap:

Django, son of Duke

But more of him later this summer.

(You can see Chris’s amazing photo of the Woking Martian and read his thoughts on our Wellsian pilgrimage here.)

 

Conned

We had a great Eastercon. Spending time with so many wonderful friends and colleagues is always a pleasure and a privilege, and chats with Ian Whates, Pete and Nicky Crowther, Andrew Hook (at the con just for one day with his lovely partner Sophie and gorgeous little girl Cora), Simon Ings, Alison Littlewood, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Gary Couzens, David Hebblethwaite, Chris Beckett, Neil Williamson, Mercurio D. Rivera, Jaine Fenn, Paul McAuley, Justina Robson and Ian Sales among many others were what this, as every other, Eastercon was mostly about. But there was also the town of Bradford itself, which surprised and delighted us in so many ways – the National Media Museum and Omar Khan’s curry house both stand out as highlights. Then there were the three days we spent after leaving Bradford, exploring Whitby and Scarborough (Scarborough we fell in love with) and the North Yorkshire moors. A special week – busy and productive and enriching.

The news of Iain Banks’s tragic illness, which we heard on the radio as we were driving home this afternoon, came as a deeply saddening shock, at odds with the sunlight.

At Whitby Abbey - photo by Chris Priest

Scarborough time traveller? Photo by Chris Priest

Grave of Anne Bronte, St Mary's, Scarborough

Hastings in winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pendle etc

Approaching Pendle Hill
From Ilkley Moor

The Parsonage, Haworth

Ribblehead Viaduct

The Devonshire Inn, Skipton

We’ve been spending the past week exploring the Yorkshire/Lancashire borderlands, a part of the country neither of us had previously visited and that we found incredibly inspiring, both in terms of landscape and literary heritage. I’ve loved the work of the Brontes all my life, and in spite of the tourist trappings that are Haworth’s inevitable burden I felt very much moved to find myself inside the parsonage, stepping into the space where Anne and Emily and Charlotte read and wrote and discussed their work. The rooms of the house are surprisingly small. They have presence, or rather there is a presence, still tangible, within them, especially in the dining room, where the sisters read aloud to each other most evenings.

Unlike Haworth, the village of Mytholmroyd, where Ted Hughes was born, is – aside from the blue plaque beside the front door of No 1 Aspinall Street – completely untouched by tourism. It has grown in size of course, but the village Hughes would have known and remembered is still plainly visible, easily mappable. The warmth of the place (as with so many northern townships), its tie to the land, is palpable. I’ve known for a long time what it looks like – I was fifteen or sixteen when I first saw a photograph of the small terraced house that is Hughes’s birthplace – but still the impact of finally being there, of standing in the street outside, was considerable, a special moment.

Pendle Hill, Ilkley Moor, the journey by rail from Settle to Appleby, the Devonshire Inn at Skipton (where the opening chapters of The Space Machine take place) – these were all special moments. Most of all just the sense of space, both literal and imaginative, of high and narrow roads that might lead anywhere. The Forest of Bowland – an isolate domain of heather moorland and woodland trails – was a revelation.

A way-too-good-to-miss book sale in Skipton (silly prices) meant we returned with considerably more in our luggage than we started out with. I came away with Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud, Nicola Barker’s The Yips, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. I was also able to pick up Philip Almond’s new book about the Pendle witch trials, The Lancashire Witches. So that’s me sorted for the next couple of months. And when Chris has finished with Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton I’ll be reading that, too.

An amazing week.

Now that we’re back, I’ll be giving What Happened to Maree a close going-over – there are some line edits and other bits and pieces I need to attend to. After so many months of working on the book in isolation, having it read by another – Chris is, of course, the one reader I can trust absolutely – has somehow released it. Now, finally, I’m getting a sense of the novel as a whole – what it is, how it reads, what I meant by it – and I’m happy to say I’m feeling very excited.

Aspinall Street, Mytholmroyd

The old church, Heptonstall

Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley

Winchelsea

So she parked on a street adjacent to The Lookout (by the Old Strand Gate) where there was a famously stunning view over the marshes below (the Royal Military Canal, the long road into Rye, the remains of Camber Castle, Winchelsea Beach, Dungeness – the power station and the lighthouse, both twinkling vaguely in the Channel – even France, on a good day), and led him by the hand (although he insisted on leaving the boy behind – ‘as a precaution’) to take in the vista.

The wind was biting and it was threatening to rain again. Dory gazed down, in silence, for several minutes, yet no matter how hard he tried (and he was trying – the powerful wave of his reason crashing, indomitably, against the sheer cliff of his instinct), he seemed incapable of feeling any kind of rapport with the landscape.

‘But where’s the great forest, Elen?’ he finally murmured.

(Nicola Barker, Darkmans p439)

The extraordinary thing is that when I first read Nicola Barker’s magisterial novel Darkmans in 2007 I had not yet encountered this landscape, nor seen any of the places named in the paragraphs above. Now that I am getting to know them, to assimilate them as imagery as well as fact, I find that Barker’s novel – which I loved and admired from the first – resonates with me all the more deeply.

Darkmans is a piece of work. In an interview she gave around the time of its publication, Nicola Barker talked about how she went into a kind of suspended animation during the final months of writing it, cutting off the internet, wearing ear muffs to block out all exterior noise. I found myself understanding and applauding. Real writing takes everything, precludes all other mental activity, all outside stimuli.

It means forfeiting the quotidian world – at least for a while.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Darkmans today, about how much I admire it – those unruly, renegade sentences, that don’t-give-a-stuff disregard for competent orderliness (and ordinariness) that conceals such stern craftsmanship, most of all that vertiginous, daredevil way of commandeering the fantastic – and how much it still continues to inspire me.

The scope of its ambition – and it’s an ambition realised – is enough to prevent any writer from sleeping at night.

It’s one of those books I like to keep close by, like a lucky charm.

This road sign, whose history I haven’t investigated yet, can be seen just before the turnoff path to Winchelsea station.

I can’t help but feel there has to be a story here somewhere.

Climbing towards Winchelsea Beacon.

Tram Road, Rye Harbour.

Lincs & Lancs

We’ve spent most of this past week in Lincolnshire. Now well into his second draft of The Adjacent, Chris suddenly decided he really needed to visit the WW2 bomber bases at Coningsby and Scampton, territory that formed one of the main settings for The Separation and that features strongly again in the new book. And so we set off. I always derive huge benefits and excitement from visiting parts of the country that are new to me, and when the relatively simple act of travelling to somewhere unknown is combined with such weird and arresting experiences as sitting in the pilot’s seat of an old Canberra B6 or standing beneath the windows of the room where Guy Gibson and his squadron received their mission briefing for the Dam Busters raid, then these happenings pass from memorable to significant.

‘Bomber County’ is quietly, unassumingly beautiful, a place for hiding out and holing up. But reminders of what you might even call the bombing industry are everywhere here, and make thoughts of war and anger over it inescapable. Wandering around the vast hangars filled with historic aircraft and crash site excavations trying to get my own take on everything I came back again and again to the thought that once a war has been fought what we are mostly left with is twisted and rusting machinery and the stories, which become legends, of the courage and forbearance of those individuals who fight or suffer war’s oppressions and privations. The rest – the politics and rationale behind every war – is ultimately proved mendacious or misguided.

An intense and intensely valuable couple of days, not least because for a writer it’s impossible not to want to respond on some level. Trips like this yield stories, inspirations that are often different from those that seem more immediately discernable.

The trick is to wait.

Returned to the news that Dietrich Fischer Dieskau has passed away. I can scarcely believe it.

A wonderful book with a very personal take on WW2 is Daniel Swift’s Bomber County, the story of one man’s search for his lost grandfather and the lives and experiences of the Allied airmen as revealed through poetry. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

Fischer Dieskau is probably most famous for his interpretations of Schubert, but his repertoire was vast, his knowledge and understanding of the German Lied completely unique. Fortunately we’ll be able to go on treasuring this and drawing on it through the legacy of his recordings. I’ve been listening to him this morning in a recording of ‘Firnelicht’, a song from a little-known Lieder cycle called Berg und See by Othmar Schoeck. The song is about a Friedrichian ‘Wanderer’ as he thrills to the strange radiance, the particular light of the mountains. Thinking about Fischer Dieskau today, the words of the last verse seem particularly appropriate.

What can I do for my country before I go to rest in my grave? What can I give that will outrun death? A word perhaps, perhaps a song. A still, small Shining.

(The words are by Conrad Meyer 1825-98.)

Was kann ich für die Heimat tun,
bevor ich geh im Grabe ruhn?
Was geb ich, das dem Tod entflieht?
Vielleicht ein Wort, vielleicht ein Lied,
ein kleines stilles Leuchten!
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