Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Creative isolation or arrogant self-absorption?

Overheard yesterday evening on the bus: a young woman and a slightly older man, discussing her dreams and hopes. Hard to tell what their relationship was – he was supportive to an indulgent degree, but not old enough to be her father, yet didn’t act or talk like a lover, either. I would normally want to be supportive too – I know what it is like to have dreams and hopes, after all! - yet I found myself increasingly irritated by her.

She was one of these people who think they are already perfect, and who believe they don’t need to pay any attention to the rest of the world. She wanted to be a singer, but said she didn’t listen to other singers “because I don’t like being influenced by other people’s music”. She also thought she had a book in her, but couldn’t tell her companion what sort of book she would write because she didn’t know what kind of book it would be, owing to the fact that she didn’t ever read anything, because “reading is so boring”. I kept thinking the guy would say something gentle about not living in a vacuum; but all he did was tell her how great she was.

Now, I realise I do not suffer fools gladly; it is and always has been one of my big faults in personal relationships. I am also aware that I am intolerant of people who seem to be getting buckets of praise and support for doing absolutely b*gger all; and that is simply pure envy, which is hardly something to be self-congratulatory about either. So I was getting thoroughly irritated - with this lass holding forth and being praised, when it seemed she had very little to offer except a big head and a conviction that so long as you are original that will be enough to make your fortune, and also with myself because I knew my irritation was so characteristically pompous. All in all a rather uncomfortable experience.

But it has made me think. She reminded me of the people I was at Art College with who if taken to an exhibition walked through it as fast as they could so as to get to spend as much time as possible in either Prêt à Manger or the nearest pub. I have no right to be prescriptive, I know, but it shocks me when someone wants to be successful in the creative arts yet has no interest in the continuum within which they are working. I don’t feel that the excuse of protecting one’s originality from contamination will really do; it seems rather a small fig leaf to me, given the scale of what it is being asked to cover. Excuse the mixed metaphor!

How is a would-be writer who doesn’t read ever to learn the first thing about how to write well - how to construct a sentence and a paragraph, how to put across a point or create a believable situation? How is an artist who doesn’t look at anyone else’s art to discover the medium and the technique that most excites them? How is the musician who doesn’t listen to music ever to get beyond singing in the shower? Setting aside the self-indulgence of my irritation for a moment, I simply can’t see how anyone really thinks they will get to be any good at anything if they try to pursue it in a vacuum. Isolation is one thing, and we are all creatively isolated when we start out, trying to find our voice and our way; but this cool refusal to engage with the rest of the world smacks to me of blind arrogance.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

More on the good weekend...

Firstly – to continue where I left off, with John Ward’s murals in Challock Church.

I nearly modelled for John Ward, not long before he died. I met him and arrangements were made, but then he was unwell and it was postponed; then I moved to London and the postponement became indefinite, and then he passed away. I remember him as a lovely old guy, as deaf as the proverbial post but full of joie de vivre nonetheless. I have to say, too, that a lot of the time I didn’t like his work; cool and academic and a tad whimsical, it just wasn’t my cup of tea, though I could see it was marvellous draughtsmanship technically. I suppose for someone who makes most of their living as a portraitist it must be very easy to slide into playing it safe, to be sure of pleasing the clients – many of whom one may find tiresome in the extreme, but still have to charm.

I didn’t know until this weekend just past that he also painted murals in the church of St Cosmas and St Damian, which stands in a wooded valley on the outskirts of the tiny village of Challock Lees in the Kentish stretch of the North Downs. An old friend of my mother’s decided to take us to see them at the weekend.

He painted a rather over-tidy sequence in the Chancel in the 1950s, but then came back in 2000 to produce, with his friend Gordon Davies, a huge painting depicting Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, set in the local Kent landscape, along the whole north wall – with the Challock Lees’ annual Summer Goose Fair standing in for Jerusalem at Passover, and local people in contemporary clothes crowding the scene. It sounds twee, but it isn’t. It works. The figure work is fairly conventional, but what makes the whole vast spread of the painting sing is the mass of details – the magnificent tree overarching the whole composition, and the animals, birds and insects amidst the foliage; the giant angel releasing little winged leaf-spirits into the air from abreast of the west wall; the classic Victoria sponge on the cake stall at the fête, the cat lurking under the table, the child clutching a teddy bear, the key to the church lying on the table in front of the current vicar, the girl caught just lowering her camera from taking a snapshot of Jesus passing by. The whole thing is packed with all the richness of life and painted with all the love of a long life richly lived. There is nothing chilly or academic here, the painting is very free, and full of delight, with the flowers of every season scattered over the whole. And, too, this is a world with no hierarchy. The vicar is as worthy of grace as the lapwing. And quite right too.

Mind you, if you want really great twentieth century art in a Kent church, then head for Tudeley, near Tonbridge. John Ward’s murals are lovely, but Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows in All Saints, Tudeley are simply astonishing. The first time I went there I wandered around the church crying with delight. Admittedly I cry easily, but usually that is at the theatre or over a book (or at funerals – I’m one of those people who always cry at funerals), or in some other situation when tears are being intentionally provoked. Not simply from being immersed in the pure perfection of colour and the miracle of light. Not from the seven days of creation in Chagall-esque imagery, complete with flying donkey…

In fact, if you only ever go to one Kent church, make it Tudeley; you will be blown away.

Monday, 28 September 2009

A good weekend and a great evening.

I hate to seem as if I’m moaning, but it is tough sometimes having to work for my living!

I have just had a lovely long weekend off, and I suppose that is what has precipitated this sensation of being ill-done-by. Even the fact that today it has turned cloudy and cool doesn’t completely assuage my regret that I am no longer sitting in the sun, drinking cold drinks and eating cashews, on a seat overlooking my mother’s large, ramshackle, richly-flowering garden and the fields and woods beyond.

“Don Carlos” was fantastic: an excellent production, honourable, illuminating and clear, with nothing imposed and no specious directorial tricks cluttering it up; good, striking designs that were visually strong and that used the stage pictures to help tell the story and intensify the atmosphere, an orchestra at the top of their game; and a top-notch cast. It is hard to know who to single out among the singers; hard, indeed, to know where to start in praise of the performance as a whole. It’s an opera I have loved ever since I first heard it; for the wonderful music and for the fact the tragedy is driven by serious issues and not just by a culture that is sentimental about doomed love affairs. To my father’s evident bewilderment, it was the first dvd I bought when he gave me a dvd player – the Chatelet production with the little-and-large act of Alagna and Hampson as Carlo and Posa. That’s a good production, too, but this had the added, immeasurable, benefit of being live. There’s nothing quite like live performance for the additional thrill factor.

Jonas Kaufmann was a wonderful Carlos. His voice is a thing of beauty, manly, bronze-coloured and baritonal, strong yet with the delicacy to move into an exquisite mezza voce; I would even venture to say I was reminded of recordings of Jussi Bjorling, and for me, you can’t say better than that. Factor in on top of this the fact that he looks the part and he can act, and you have one very happy Dent. This Don Carlos was not merely a sad and misunderstood boy, but clearly unbalanced from the start; painfully shy, then sliding rapidly into real neurosis and moments of wild hysteria. The character’s tragic lack of self-control was all the more intense when compared with the lucid and almost calculating intelligence of Simon Keenlyside’s marvellous Posa; (Favourite Baritone done good - that's Favourite Baritone, above, by the way; picture reproduced, with grateful thanks, from

Marina Poplavskaya was a steely, exciting Elisabetta, John Tomlinson a scary Grand Inquisitor, and Ferruccio Furlanetto a tremendous, deeply complex King Philip; a figure almost as tragic as his son, full of fire, anguish and iron, bitterly lonely, cruel and troubled by his cruelty… He has such a rich, warm voice, yet conveyed a man capable of implacable coldness, eternally harsh towards the son whose own flailing character he cannot cope with; then consumed with grief as, alone, his voice blanched and empty, he struggles to come to terms with his loveless marriage and broken family life. The confrontation with Posa was almost unbearably intense; two great singer-actors, both at the peak of their powers, performing with heartfelt conviction and stunning musicality, as these two intelligent men face up to one another, pushing and pulling at the tensions and the power-play between them. The King shifts from anger to sudden respect as suddenly he sees the thing he has been longing for, an honest and honourable man who will tell him the truth, but he is agonisingly aware that the opening out of possibilities this offers him is an illusion; his heir is the volatile and disturbed Carlos, not this decent, brave, rational man who will take such staggering risks for what he believes in. In the moment when Posa challenges Philip outright, crying out, in response to the King’s claim to bring peace, that this will be only “la pace del sepolcro!” – and the whole orchestra explodes with a huge blast of fury to back him – this production puts him upstage, suddenly completely dominant and literally rounding upon the king, yet with arms outstretched in an almost Christ-like gesture; a veritable embodiment of moral force before which Philip visibly falls back…

It was a hell of an evening.

The rest of the weekend was taken up with a trip to a food festival (much sampling, of goodies wildly assorted, and subsequent mild indigestion), a trip to Challock church to see the murals, a couple of nice pub lunches, some walks and a fair amount of sitting in the sun.

I’ll write more about the food festival and the murals another time.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Off to Don Carlo...

I'm off to see "Don Carlos" at the Royal Opera tonight, and then down to Kent for a long weekend at my mum's doing nothing. I hope this sweet, mild autumnal weather holds for the weekend - today is cloudier, but it is still balmy-mild, and everywhere the first fall colours are starting to show - holly berries blushing the shade of rose wine, Virginia creeper going crimson and scarlet overnight.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

Monday, 21 September 2009

PS "I am reading right now"

Well, I'm not, actually, as I'm still at work - but I will be going back to it when I get home. A new book:

"Conway's The War at Sea, 1939 - 1945"

It's fantastic, a concise, clear history of the second world war with a strong emphasis on the naval side, some astonishing illustrations, and one or two bits (eg the account of Operation Pedestal) that have reduced me to tears.

Oh, and my elder brother is the co-author. I am so proud of him! One of the family at least has made it into print; and worthily so. Even if he is pissed-off about some of the layout work.

Constructive criticism and a good weekend

A while ago – it must have been a couple of months back – I submitted my draft query letter and synopsis, and a short extract of the text of GY, to an online Peer Review site for some comments. It has been a very interesting experience.

Some of what made it so has been through things I had anticipated, and even hoped-for; for example, some useful comments on my very weak query letter, and some good advice on cuts (as well as some more advice on cuts that was utterly useless – more on this anon!). But another aspect of the experience that has been enormously useful has been dealing with the advice that was no use. I had guessed that some of the suggestions would be pointless (five years of Art School can make one pretty cynical about critiques) but had not expected this, in itself, to be helpful.

Every piece of advice I have had has made me look afresh at what I’ve written. The good advice has made me rethink - sometimes with a whoop of delight at a glitch spotted and solved, sometimes with a sigh at a phrase I like, but don’t need, removed - and I have rewritten or made cuts in response. Genuinely constructive criticism is a lovesome thing, God wot. To my delight, I have found it not just useful but actively enjoyable. Constructive criticism shines. It purrs. It is wonderful. I want to put a ring on it (I’m a single leg…). I have had relatively little of it in my life (see comment about Art School, above) but I know it when I see it, and it is truly a delight to get the real thing.

The bad advice, on the other hand, has made me sort out and explain to myself why it was bad, and this has clarified things that in some cases I had never really thought about, much less analysed in any depth.

For example; one commenter produced a complete re-write of my opening paragraphs; reducing about 600 words to 75 or so in the process. Her basic point was that she thinks I over-write and I need to make some cuts. Fair enough, and she was right on both counts. But the scale of the suggested reduction was ludicrous, and the attitude of someone who feels happy to make such a sweeping revision, apparently without any suspicion that it might not be welcomed, baffles me. The thing is, if I followed this advice, I’d be left with a piece of stark, minimalist prose completely out of keeping with the whole way I write. I write for the joy of writing, and I write to become the best writer I am able to be – but as myself; not as an imitator of some other writer who does do stark minimalism.

If the only way I can get published is to write in a way that is entirely alien to me, and for which I therefore have neither passion nor commitment, then I’d simply stop writing altogether, because I would not give a tinker’s **** for it. So telling me to write in a totally different way is pointless. It may even be true that the prose style recommended is the only thing that gets into print at the moment, presumably because it is fashionable. I hope it isn’t so, but if it is, well, in that case, I just won’t get published.

This has taught me something I’d never really understood about myself. I don’t write because I have decided to make a career as a writer. I don’t write because I expect to make a living as a writer. I write because I want to write. I have stories I want to tell. If I can get published, so much the better. If I can get read, so much the better still. If by some miracle I could one day spend most of my time writing and know I’d earn enough to live on from this, without having a day job (even one as quirky as this), so much the better yet. Who would not prefer, in an ideal world, to spend the bulk of their time doing things that are truly satisfying, rather than cramming them in around the edges of the dull daily grind of work? But if that cannot be, I’ll still write, because I really am not in it for the money.

Even among the constructive criticism, some is (for want of a better term) right, and some is not right. But I have had to think about why the not-right stuff is so. I’ve accepted advice to prune the description of the flock of starlings, and cut a little bit of description of Simon’s past dreams, which I am fond of but have had to agree doesn’t move the story on or serve any other function. But then a bit later on the same commenter who proposed this suggested that I cut out the first description of Falmory’s orchard; and since the orchard goes on to figure several more times and to be mildly important, I don’t agree with cutting it. And I would never have thought this through, if the cut had not been proposed in the first place. I just wrote it as it came to me, bluuuumm, like water out of a tap.

The whole experience has made me analyse the text differently, and I have made further tweaks and cuts along the same lines, and mentally ear-marked a couple of areas where there are things that I like but which one could argue are not essential to the unfolding of the story. If I am ever talking to an agent or an editor about GY, I’ll expect to be looking at those areas again!

Although I felt pretty ropey physically all weekend, with a gut-rot like nothing on earth, working through all of this and inputting the revisions I agreed with and the further ones that were prompted by this process kept me busy and happy. And I had the pleasure of a very low evening’s tele on Saturday – “Merlin”, “Strictly Come Dancing”, and “Casino Royale”. The first two were exactly as anticipated, ie harmless fun; the last was a lot better than I had expected. I hadn’t gone to see it in the cinema. I got very bored with the old model Bond movies – the oh-so-tired formula of exotic locations, sick jokes, explosions and excruciating sexism. The idea of a blond Bond with jug ears wasn’t terribly appealing, either. Luckily Daniel Craig is a good enough actor to overcome these mild physical shortcomings (& he looks good stripped, too), and some wise soul has given the old formula the boot, and instead has produced a good, solid, genuinely thrilling and plot-twist-ing action movie with a bit of real characterisation and development on the side. It made for a good evening, and a box of chocolates slipped down very well alongside.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Newsflash (cheerful Dent)

Some better news – I may actually get some of the inheritance money that I first heard about back in March in the next week or so. It isn’t a fortune – I won’t be buying a house with it, even if I were able to move to the cheapest part of the country! – but it is enough to make me feel rather cheerful this afternoon, and inclined to buy a bottle of wine and some chocolates for myself on the way home tonight. And as I’m now going to a picnic on Sunday I may bake something nice and bring something with bubbles in along to that, too. I wonder if one can make chocolate bobóta? I’ll have a look at the recipe and see if I can tweak it…

Girls only read this, I think!...

Normal service has been resumed.

It’s one of those things I don’t think a man will ever quite be able to understand; the intensity of the relief when you see that bit of red spotting... I guess learning that “Oh thank god, she’s not pregnant, panic over” is probably a pretty powerful life moment for some guys, in some situations, and “Oh no, she’s not pregnant, again - what’s wrong with us?” must be the sad thought of some other guys whose lives are in a different situation. But I can’t help thinking it’s another experience altogether for girls. Is that sexist of me, I wonder?

At any rate, I am now once again certain that I am not pregnant – even more certain than I was already, which means very certain indeed! I’ll need to go to the doctor if this happens again, since if running two weeks late shows signs of being a regular (irregular) event it may mean premature menopause (aargh) or something wrong with my ovaries (been there, done that; oh heck, not again)…

Hormones – who’d have them?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Corydalis everywhere, and the undead

This lovely little plant is Corydalis lutea; it grows not just everywhere but absolutely anywhere. It grows in walls, in dust, in drains. I'm very fond of it, which is a good thing as my bit of garden in Turnham Green is full of it. Sadly not even the good old Plants for a Future database can suggest any uses for it, and they think Datura is useful (albeit with some serious provisos regarding its toxicity, hallucinogenic properties, etc).

And as for the undead: I treated myself to two "soothing and relaxing" cds at the weekend; "Sounds of the rainforest", which really is soothing; and "Sounds of the British Coastline", which is lovely for about three quarters of the time, but has several tracks that are just a little strange: for example

Track 5; Kittiwake colony. Sounds like several thousand of the Virgin Mandy all shrieking "He's not the Messiah!" at full volume.

Track 11; Manx shearwaters coming in to roost. Or possibly a symposium of asthmatic flying chain smokers.

And, best of all

Track 9; Grey seals at night. Do you know that line that comes up in the Bible at intervals, about being "cast into the outer darkness where there is wailing and knashing of teeth"? That's a grey seal colony for you. Their vocalisations are truly ghastly - I now have a mental picture of terrified sailors coming round the coast of East Anglia after dark, hearing to what sounds like the Undead in full cry off the starboard bow, and steering out into the wilds of a North Sea storm to escape.

Isn't nature wonderful...

Friday, 11 September 2009

Five o'clock approaches...

...and I start to feel more human.

Not fully human, as yet - it'll take a little shift in the hormonal levels to do that - but more like a sane adult who's had a bafflingly rough week, and less like The Scream personified (I can only find it with Homer, sadly, not Lisa).

And all gloomy thoughts aside, I'm quite sure I can fit in a baking session and some writing, and possibly a trip to the Wetland Centre. Don't know if I can rustle up a party tonight, working from scratch, with no guests and no budget, though... But ah, I have a bottle of cheap Sauvignon Blanc in the bottom of the wardrobe, so all is not lost. I will sit in the wardrobe and drink my sorrows dry.

Coming to the end of an odd week...

I'm eating my way through a packet of clotted cream fudge so calorific you could practically run a car off it, trying to beat the "Oh gods, can I cope?" feeling. Thank God It's Friday.

It's been an odd week. The weather has turned autumnal, the visitor numbers at Kew have plunged, the enquiries are getting odder again as if in preparation for winter, a helicopter is circling over Kew Green endlessly (represses urge to yell "F**k off!" out of window) and my period is late. VERY late.

I can't be pregnant. If I were pregnant, the child would have started school by now, if you see what I mean. But this means I have a f**king helicopter going round and round over my head and I am pre-menstrual as bejayzuz and I have to find civil and courteous ways to write back to the people making odd requests and enquiries. >sigh<

As I said, TGIF. With knobs on.

1. What I want to do this weekend:
Go to a party and have a great evening chatting to interesting people, drinking nice wine and eating too much.
Go to the Wetland Centre and see lovely migratory birds, and sketch and paint.
Do lots of writing.
Bake homemade bread rolls and a chocolate cake.

2. What I probably will do this weekend:
Do grocery shopping.
Pay bills.
Do my income tax return.
Tidy up the garden.

But I intend to cram at least one of list 1 into list 2, even if it takes me all weekend to do it. Take care out there!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

A lunchtime walk...

I really am very lucky in where I work. I could be in an office in the middle of the City with nothing around me but miles of glass and steel and tarmac. Instead I can walk out into a huge and beautiful, and superbly tended, garden. I can stroll in the autumn sun, or sit under a eucalyptus, inhaling that delicious, honey-and-medicine scent, and watching the wagtails feeding, and dragonflies darting over the lily pool outside the Jodrell Laboratory.

The Gardens are full of autumn-flowering cyclamen. Everywhere you look, there they are, delicate and bright, isolated clumps appearing unheralded, or broad banks of them spreading under trees. There are colchicums all over, too; big blowsy waterlily-type doubles and slender old-fashioned single ones in clear pink and white. There is still plenty of late summer colour also; the salvia border is a treat, with swathes of red, pink, scarlet, true blue and royal purple, and a gorgeous, although clearly erratic, red-&-white bicolour called “Hotlips”. The Alpine House has tiny north African narcissi, glorious Sternbergias, and lovely bulbs from Australia and the Cape to whose internal calendar this is early spring… Outside the walled garden of Cambridge Cottage, where I work, a Lagerstroemia ten feet tall (see picture - that is not Kew's specimen but it looks very similar) is covered in shocking pink crinkle-flowers, their colour zinging against the red brick wall and the adjacent vermillion of a dwarf pomegranate in full flower. There are insects humming, the air is mild and fresh and the sun is warm, and robins are singing in the trees.

Only robins, though. The other songbirds have all become quiet, just in the last week or so. Autumn is definitely on its way.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Return to work after a week off...

Oh, that was a lovely break. Such peace, such quiet, in rural and unexciting Kent. How much one suddenly appreciates the quietness of a provincial town, which once seemed stiflingly dull, after four years plus of the smelly, preoccupied and traffic-laden hubbub that is west London.

For the last ten days I have been breathing clean air, listening to birdsong, walking in the countryside or by the coast, talking to my family (and to the cat), and sitting in the garden re-reading “Jane Eyre”. Bliss. I even did some sketching and a couple of watercolours. I wish I could attach them here but the lack of either a scanner or a digital camera (other than the one on my phone) is a problem here.

I have been sitting on the shingle at Greatstone, with a sky like blue enamel overhead, full of sandwich terns and tawny young herring gulls, swooping and shrieking, while the tide slowly comes in over miles of glittering wet sands; walking along the front at Broadstairs, where almost nothing seems to have changed in thirty years (& to my delight I found that although the Albion Bookshop has closed the wonderful Albion Second Hand Bookshop is still operating); gathering blackberries and bullaces on the Western Heights and then walking along the cliff top, on springy turf studded with harebells, wild thyme and marjoram.

There was time to sit and do nothing, flopped on the lawn under the old “Frau Dagmar Hartrop” rose (which despite its official status as a Single-flowering Old Rose was covered in a healthy second flush of cinnamon-scented shell-pink blooms). Time to read. Time to lie and blink in the sun, and daydream, dozing on the borders between thought and sleep, like a peaceful cat, only a cat with a cup of tea.

I read “Jane Eyre” and then followed that up with an excellent biography of Pierre Bonnard and then a John Wyndham, “The Chrysalids”, that I read as a teenager and haven’t re-read since. Not surprisingly, “Jane Eyre” stood up well to the rerun treatment. I had forgotten how much I love Jane – how completely I identify with her. Within the framework of a Victorian ideal, her relationship with Rochester is so much nearer to my own ideal than many a more modern one in fiction; their greatest bond is that of like-minded people enjoying and being stimulated by one another’s company, and although the physical attraction between them is made clear it is neither overstated nor made out to be the centre of their relationship. “The Chrysalids” suffered rather by comparison. In the first part, where the narrator is just a child, the directness of the storytelling works well, but once he is meant to be a lad of eighteen or nineteen he begins to seem a cipher. On the other hand, the depiction of a post-nuclear-holocaust world where society is run by religious extremists is far better done – more low-key, and both more disturbing and also far more real – than in many later uses of the same trope.

The Bonnard book simply made me want to paint. >sigh< If only there were more time in the day, and less rubbish having to be done with said time.