A Single Man learns a Universal Truth.

I don’t think I’m alone in trying to absent myself from the grim reality that is Article 50, and Britain’s entry on the desolate road to Brexit. To stay tuned in all day to social media at the moment is to punish myself constantly. Every news update twists the thumb screw tighter; each check on Facebook allows the torturer to put another turn on the rack. How many times a day do i need to be reminded that we’re now on a one-way journey to isolation, leaving in our wake decades of progress, peace and mutual understanding?

Last night, aware that on the eve of Article 50 being triggered, this calamitous leap into the void would be all over the news and social media like bullet holes on a shooting range target, I quarantined myself with several pots of tea and a book. Now, reading is not an unfamiliar or unusual habit for a writer, but spending an entire evening reading still feels like a luxury. With so many other projects and tasks jostling for attention, taking four hours out of the schedule is decadence itself. I didn’t even choose a children’s book, which could justifiably be classed as research.

No, my drug of choice in my quest for Brexit coverage amnesia was my go-to, literary comfort blanket: Christopher Isherwood, and last night I settled down to read A Single Man. wp-1490788442115.jpeg

Being a stream of consciousness novel, with a serious, somewhat heavy-going theme, it was guaranteed to transport me far away from this small island and the worries, fear and despair that come these days from living here. I settled down to be transported far away to California, where I could lose myself in the worries, fears and despair of someone else.

A Single Man is not intended to uplift the spirit; it doesn’t entertain; there are few smiles, and those that appear tend to be wry and ironic. The novella is melancholic and pessimistic. But it is also beautifully written prose, well-observed, and unashamed to wear its gay subject matter right there on its tee-shirt sleeve. It is an important book. It speaks the truth. It is life, loss, love and lust. It is a story for all time.

And there lay my problem: reading Isherwood last night reminded me that great writing transcends the here and now; or rather, it transcends the there and then of when it was written, offering universal truths that speak to us across the years, to the here and now. It holds up a mirror to that here and now, and in its reflection we see the there and then.

The opening paragraphs of A Single Man brought this home to me:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home.

But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until – later or sooner – perhaps – no, not perhaps – quite certainly: it will come.

Fear tweaks the vagus nerve. A sickish shrinking from what waits, somewhere out there, dead ahead.”

My instant reaction to these opening words was: really? Am I not to have even five minutes shielded from the sickish shrinking from what waits out there? I almost put the book down; it was supposed to take me away from my concerns and the sinking, sickish feeling Brexit is giving me. But I didn’t. I carried on reading until the last page.

I’m glad I finished the book; I’m glad I stuck with George as he faced the day ahead. His experience on one single day, as one single human, is about as unsingular as it can be. It is the experience we all face, every single day: we can’t avoid the inevitability of time passing, nor of events happening, so we prepare ourselves for the onslaught of life, or death, and get on with it.

It is the universal experience of being human. Brexit or no Brexit; Trump or no Trump. The day must be faced.

I even forced myself to listen to the news this morning. Article 50 can’t be avoided; it must be faced. I don’t have to like it. I’m never going to like it. But life, with its loss, its love, and its lust, is still there too.

With A Single Man, Isherwood speaks through the decades. His human experience is no different to mine. We all live, lust and love. And we all suffer loss. I’m losing my European identity right now; and I’ve lost more than that in the past.

Isherwood, I think, is saying: “Yes, I know. Shit happens.”

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Publication Day.

It’s a day all writers hope to see; a day to dream about, sitting at a desk, staring into space. A day which often seems impossible, unlikely, unobtainable. A day to confirm the belief in yourself which you don’t always possess.

First Publication Day.

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Not for me the Fourth of July.
Et ce n’est pas le14 juillet. Non.

I haven’t been hoping year after year, month after month, day after long day, for independence; I’ve been waiting for publication. To see my name in print; in a book.

And so, the 17th July will henceforth be referred to chez flyingscribbler as ‘Publication Day’.

Ok, so it’s not my book per se. I’ve yet to publish anything bearing my name on the cover, ( something, naturally, I hope to put right in days, months, years to come), but I’m more than happy to settle for two of my stories to appear in a short story collection.

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So I won’t be earning a penny from sales. This is not important. If I’d wanted to earn a living from writing, I would have given up ages ago….a report last week said your average published writer earns £11,000 a year from their toil. This is so far below the minimum wage as to make it practically worthless.
Sales of the anthology of winning stories in the Words with Jam ‘Bigger’ short story competition instead go to that publication (check it out, do), and to amazon.

But I don’t care. I’m currently on cloud nine, basking in my small degree of success; intending to celebrate in rather bigger style, almost certainly out of proportion to my achievement.
Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned since picking up my pencil, it’s that even the tiniest success must be celebrated.

Is that a cork I hear popping?

Incidentally, if you wish to add to Amazon’s groaning sack of cash, oh, and read my two stories, the book is “An Earthless Melting Pot”, published by Words with Jam,  (www.wordswithjam.co.uk).

Justin N Davies. Writer.

The Ship That Never Sailed.

Having joined Historic Scotland recently, (they can be very persuasive; and they made it seem like such a good deal), it was decided, late in the day, that a visit to Blackness Castle was in order. It makes sense to use the membership after all, and I’m a sucker for anything historic. Apart from which, it’s a year since we moved to Scotland; I ought to know more about the country’s past.

Blackness Castle is also known as ‘The Ship That Never Sailed’. I find this a touch melancholic: ships are designed to sail; if they fail to, they haven’t reached their potential. 
It’s also more than a little melodramatic; especially if you project the words with theatrical flair: with added theatricals: “THE SHIP THAT NEVER SAILED!”. Same phrase, different interpretation.

It is all a question of angles; of point of view. The castle gets its tag from the fact that, seen from the sea or from the air, it really does look much like a ship, with its bow attempting to plough on through the water. Unfortunately, the stern is very much stuck fast to solid rock.

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All aboard to Nowhere!

Seen from another perspective, it is (I won’t say “just” because Blackness isn’t just a castle..it’s a really good one), simply a castle. A castle as castles are…built solidly on land.
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Viewing things from different angles is what writers do. Finding stories when you least expect it; seeing stories where others might not: these are the rocks on which our output exists.

Walking, (stumbling, actually), over the rocky enclosures of Blackness, apart from asking myself how they managed to get around in the 1600s without twisting an ankle, I saw potential everywhere. Who, for example, could walk past an original seventeenth century castle latrine without imagining some poor soul baring his all to the gulls outside the walls, willing the job to be done before freezing his unspeakables to the seat? (it’s cold up here in the winter, especially when an easterly blows in down the river from Siberia).
What tales of wo and hardship could the prisoners thrown into the prison pit tell?
And the guards? How did they pass those long northern nights?

But then, forget a reconstruction of what could have been….tilt your head to the side, squint your eyes and……imagine….. . Things look different when you dare to dream a bit.
From a castle wall…
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appears a coiled snake, ready to attack:
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That hole in the wall…..could it really be a porthole?
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Has the ship that never sailed actually departed?

And that stepped gable end….Where does it lead? What dimension could you reach if only you dared to climb
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It’s no coincidence that Blackness Castle has been used for location shoots over the years; places like this conjure up images and ideas at the drop of a royal crown. The trick is in first spotting, then seizing the potential (oh, and then going home and turning the idea into a best-selling work of children’s fiction), before the ship sets sail and the moment is lost to the encroaching mist.

LES FLEURS ANIMEES…OR FLOWER POWER, FRENCH STYLE.

It’s always a thrill to make an unexpected  literary discovery. I experienced such a thrill last week on a visit to The Morgan Library and Museum in New York.

Whatever your views are on bankers and their (im)moral qualities, there is no doubt that Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) used some of  his wealth to create an impressive legacy in his private library, built to house an astonishing collection of books, manuscripts and artifacts. The building itself is beautiful, and the library within a bibliophile’s dream.

The Pierpont Morgan library, New York City. (image: themorgan.org)

The Pierpont Morgan library, New York City. (image: themorgan.org)

Shelf upon shelf of beautifully bound books and manuscripts line the walls of the main library, the upper tiers reached by means of two concealed spiral staircases. My first job as a teenager was as a ‘Saturday Book-Shelver’ at my local library; I envy the lucky soul who held this position at Mr Pierpont’s Manhattan library.

Nowadays, the books are kept safe behind locked gates; only the bound spines are visible to suggest what joys lie tantalizingly out of reach. There are at least five meters of bibles and prayer books, a large section of children’s literature, including an intriguing collection of miniature books, and a whole section devoted to Goethe. There are musical scores, medieval Books of Hours, and Trollopes galore.

The Morgan allows the visitor a peek at the treasures by displaying a small selection on a rotating basis. Several books lie open, Snow White-like, within glass cases, offering a glimpse of literary history to those of us who have only Billy bookcases lined with modern paperbacks at home.

One book in particular caught my attention and fired my imagination. Les Fleurs animées is a wonderful creation by J J Grandville. He was a nineteenth century caricaturist, made famous by Les Métamorphoses du jour,which comprised a series of scenes in which individuals with human bodies and animal faces were made to play human comedy. Grandville worked for various periodicals, whilst continuing to produce collections of lithographs, among which was Les Fleurs animées.

Les Fleurs is a compendium of poems, stories and vignettes about flowers, accompanied by beautiful, well-observed lithographs of ‘flowers’ – anthropomorphised depictions of each subject. The Morgan’s copy was open at the page occupied by La fleur de Thé and La fleur de Café.

Le the et le cafe par JJ Grandville

Le the et le cafe par JJ Grandville

 

In this charming tale, Le Café pays a visit to Le Thé in her native China. But all is not as it seems, because there is some disagreement (in fact, a millennial-long feud)  as to which flower is the most important. Unfortunately, the display case was made of anti-theft glass and I was unable to turn the page to find out how the argument ended. However, it did inspire me to do some research once back home and with what results!

Les fleurs animees, vol 1 & 2. By JJ Grandville

Les fleurs animees, vol 1 & 2. By JJ Grandville

It turns out that the edition on display at the Morgan was a copy of the second volume of Les Fleurs; the first contains tales and poems about flowers as varied as the rose, the violet and the chèvrefeuille (honeysuckle). L’immortelle (everlasting flower) and lavender each bemoan their lot in life: lavender laments that she is condemned to die a dry, parched death, whilst the everlasting flower wishes she could experience the first flush of a springtime youth again; never again will she be visited by a bee, or feel the brush of a butterfly’s wing.

Then there is Margueritte, the humble daisy.

The humble daisy.

The humble daisy.

To illustrate this flower, Taxile Delord, the author of the texts for both books, writes about a young girl called Anna. She, naturally enough, plucks the petals from a margueritte to discover whether ‘he loves me; he loves me not’. Anna is told a secret: namely that men play a similar game to find out whether they, in turn, are loved. ‘Young lady,’ Anna is told, ‘never answer. Men will reject you having deflowered you.’

There are also wonderful lithographs of the poppy spreading her hallucinogenic seeds,

Poppy

Poppy

and of Le perce-neige (snowdrop).

She laments that whilst it is she who calls on Spring to awaken, she is condemned never to feel the warm heat of the sun, to hear the sweet birdsong or to experience the joy of love, (unlike her lucky friend the primrose).

The snowdrop laments.

The snowdrop laments.

Volume two, of which tea and coffee are part, also depicts the Hawthorn (l’aubépine) and le Sécateur.

Watch those blades; they bite!

Watch those blades; they bite!

This story is more a warning from a mother hawthorn to her young; it tells of the terrors to be found on the edge of the woods; the cold bite of the sharp blade.

I could go on, but there are hundreds of pages of wonderful pictures and charming stories; too many by far for this blog post. I encourage you to seek out a copy of this delightful find (paperbacks are available, I believe). I am now hankering after an original copy, like the one I saw in the Morgan. Sadly, I think the only way I’ll get my hands on a first edition is by smashing that display case. Which is, of course, highly disrespectful; not to mention illegal. But it would grace my Billy so well…..

Incidentally, le thé and le café never do agree. They have what can only be described as a heated debate: “I reign in England'” says tea; “I in France,” replies coffee. “I inspired Walter Scott and Byron,” boasts tea; “and I Molière and Voltaire,” replies coffee. In the end, they take their dispute to a tribunal; the jury, goes the story, is still out.

 

(You can read – in french – the text of tea and coffee by clicking here.)

Words and Pictures/Sight and Sound

Flyingscribbler is on holiday. Which means I am also taking a break from my writing projects. Of course, I am still thinking about my writing projects; in fact, come to think of it, most days when I’m at my desk, writing and thinking about writing amount to pretty much the same thing.
Writers never stop thinking about their writing; even when they are at their day job (assuming the writing isn’t the day job of course – lucky you if it is), those projects continue to lurk in the brain, clamouring to be heard. And we must be constantly alert to the possibilities: inspirations are everywhere…a word, a sound, an event….anything can trigger the next idea.

With this in mind, I announced that on our holiday to Southern California, I would refrain from unnecessary snapping. Why take photos when looking with your own eyes offers so much more? Seeing a sunset through a smart phone screen hardly conveys the feeling and emotion it can fill you with. I have limited my photo taking so far to pictures which will simply work to trigger my appalling memory….a photo of some seaweed, an unusual bird…which might come in useful one day.

Last night, we wandered down a narrow path leading to a stunning viewpoint in Laguna Beach, just in time for the sunset. Carrying my mantra, ‘no photos, no photos’ in my head, I intended to put my feelings into words. And a very noble intention it was. But someone had got there first.

A local sculptor and public artist, Raymond Persinger, has installed these wonderful panels at the end of the lane. I thought about trying to find some words to convey the beauty of the moment, but really, I doubt I could have been as eloquent and poetic. The piece is called ‘Sound and Sight’.

Enjoy.

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SOUND AND SIGHT

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SOUND AND SIGHT

Everything old is new again.

One of the less obvious benefits afforded me by my job, is the ability to visit second-hand bookshops around the world. These are hard times for booksellers; the last page has turned for so many under the relentless pressure from on-line retailing. So when I come across a still-thriving business like Brattle Book Shop in Boston, I rejoice; and go shopping.

Brattle Book Shop, Boston

Brattle Book Shop, Boston

Brattle Book Shop claims to be one of the largest and oldest antiquarian book shops in America, established in 1825. I’m not in a position to argue this claim, and in any case, I don’t care: it’s a great place. Three floors of books, rammed onto shelves, mostly double stacked (imagine the thrill of pulling forward book after book to see what’s lurking behind in the dusty shadows), plus a bargain section bravely shivering their pages in an outside lot.

I love to browse a second-hand book shop; I could do so for hours at a time. However, I like to set a shop a challenge too, and tend to enter with one particular title in mind, after looking for which, I begin the leisurely wandering, searching for something new, or surprising, or exciting.

Some time ago I set myself the challenge of reading Trollop’s Barsetshire novels. Easily done, of course; they are all available, and inexpensive editions can be purchased on-line. For some reason, on a whim, I decided to only read used copies, and only ones I had bought myself. My last rules were to only buy them in the correct order, and only after having read the previous volume in the series. This has proved to be a good policy, because to read the entire Barsetshire Chronicles in one go is a literary marathon; un peu de trop de Trollope, if you like.

So, my first task on entering the Brattle Book Shop, was to locate a copy of Framley Parsonage, number four in the saga. I’m happy to report that Brattle’s did not disappoint; and they had a copy of the special edition Penguin series of numbered Trollope novels. A result indeed. In fact, I could have completed the entire set in one go, but that would have been to break my self-imposed rule, so I desisted, and set about browsing.

I scored again almost immediately with an almost new copy of one of Christopher Isherwood’s early novels, The Memorial, Portrait of a Family.

The Memorial, 2013 edition

The Memorial, 2013 edition

It can’t be more than a few months old, and has almost certainly never been read. I’m intrigued by this: it’s hardly something you would give as a gift without knowing it to be to that person’s taste; but this copy has been received and given away, seemingly without pause for thought. If only books could talk us through their personal history.

If only….because my next find would surely have more than a little to say about its journey.

I ventured to the top floor, the space reserved for antiquarian and rare books. I only went for a peek; to touch, to feel, to smell and to marvel. There were dozens of Baedeker travel guides from Edwardian times, the sort Cousin Charlotte  insists on consulting in A Room with a View, much to Eleanor Lavish’s disapproval. I also spotted an early edition Harry Potter on my way along the shelves. Then I had the idea to just see, out of pure bibliophile interest you understand, if there were any vintage Isherwood books to look at. There was: a wonderful, first edition of Prater Violet, published in 1945.

Prater Violet, 1945 first edition.

Prater Violet, 1945 first edition.

Despite the price tag, I had to have it. I don’t own a copy of this novel, but I wanted the book for the cover alone; it’s so of its time, with a highly stylised design, redolent of another era. I was hoping to find an inscription scribbled inside by one of the book’s previous owners, something to perhaps hint at its history, (there was an interesting segment in Open Book on Radio 4 the other day about this), but instead found something far more interesting and evocative.

The book was printed in America during the last year of the Second World War, after America had become involved, and therefore produced under wartime restrictions on use of materials. This information is printed on page two of this edition.

V for Victory!

V for Victory!

I’ve never seen this in a book before, and it is rather moving. It is also encouraging that the US government deemed books to be of sufficient importance to the American people, that they should still be produced, as well as warplanes, naval ships and munitions.

This places my new book firmly in the past; a past of which I only have second-hand knowledge from my Grandma. It is, if you like, part of history. Indeed, Isherwood’s use of dialogue places it firmly in that era, as do the descriptions of serviced apartments and operator-placed calls. And yet.

And yet what Isherwood has to say is timeless.

The short novel concerns the author’s actual involvement with an Austrian film director in the 1930s; Isherwood is hired to assist in the writing of a screenplay for a pretty mediocre film. In the course of the story, Isherwood’s character comes to understand the true horror of Nazism through the film director’s fears for his family who are still in Austria. The writer uses his cast of characters to express the different views about Hitler which were prevalent at the time.

Some talk about the horrors already being inflicted on Jews (the story takes place in the 30s), the fears for their old lives, the violence, the desire to escape. Whilst another, the head cutter at the studio, appears to see life as a quest for efficiency by establishing patterns; he is the embodiment of Nazi ideology in life and art. These people know exactly what Hitler is up to; most are horrified, one seems to appreciate it. But do they do anything to stop it?

As we know, there was a degree of indifference to the plight of Europe’s Jewish population during the 1930s, not to mention that of communists, gays and gypsies, amongst many others; anyone who did not have a place in Hitler’s vision. Isherwood wasn’t blind to it; he’d been in Berlin as the National Socialists began their rise to prominence. He may have felt a degree of regret for not being able to do more himself. In Prater Violet, he highlights the impotence displayed by those with the knowledge of events not so very far away. In this respect, the novel seems as fresh and as topical as ever: Hitler didn’t register a monopoly on ethic cleansing; there are several well-publicised events in more recent history to testify to that. And the evidence of history also proves, as, I think Isherwood is saying, that as much as people might care about events, mostly, they (we) just don’t care enough to act.

So, as old as my new book might, at first glance, appear to be, the words are timeless and tell us more about ourselves than we might honestly feel comfortable with.

This post started out as an ode to a wonderful book store. Somewhere along the way it changed into something altogether more serious. Thanks for staying with it.

Here’s to my next impromptu visit to a second-hand book shop; I hope to learn something more about myself next time.

When Secondary Characters Demand More of the Limelight.

I have just finished the first draft of a children’s novel. I was initially very excited and not a little pleased with myself for having got even that far; It’s easily the longest piece of writing that I have worked on and the most complex. However, in the cold light of day, or rather, a week later, a multitude of issues have arisen; they’re waiting outside my room now, queuing rather politely, I thought. Each is holding a slip of paper with its main shortcoming written neatly in well-proportioned handwriting. Which is more than I can say for my longhand first draft, which is scrawled in HB pencil, the last few lines of each writing session easy to spot from the rest, being, as they are, desperately thrown onto the page and virtually unreadable. It would take a crack team from Bletchley to decipher most of it.

From my desk I can just about make out a few of these issues: ‘Plot Inconsistencies’, ‘Characters’ Names Changing’; ‘Superfluous Dialogue Tags’, and ‘Things My Character Wouldn’t Say’. Certainly a fair few things to be going on with as I embark on the second draft then.

There is one issue that worries me more than the rest though, and it’s been creeping up on me over the last few days. It thinks I can’t hear it; it thinks I’m oblivious to its presence, the way it stops making a noise whenever I do, or tries to hide behind that pile of books on the arm of the sofa whenever I turn round to catch it at its mischievous game.

You see, I’ve been fleshing out my characters, adding in the bits that were missing from the first draft, so that they might be more fully formed as I begin the second. I don’t mean limbs or noses; although, come to think of it, an extra nose on one of my characters would certainly be an interesting development for the rest to cope with. Hmm…maybe not.  I’m talking about their mannerisms, favourite clothes and phobias, (not everyone likes custard, you know; it scares some people silly). The things that really make them tick; or tock. I might even throw in the psychological consequences of the sudden dredging up of a repressed memory, (did I mention this was a comedic novel?)

And there’s the rub: at least one of my secondary characters is showing signs of becoming rather more interesting than the hero of the piece. If it continues like this, if they insist on maintaining their newly discovered  figure of speech or that ridiculous foible which makes everyone else (author included) laugh out loud, then what does the future hold for my main character? I’ve been working on her for ages; the story revolves around her; she is the story.

I know what you’ll say: you’ll tell me to just go away and write another novel; one about that other character: the boy who won’t stop being a little bit more interesting. Or else you’ll suggest I hold back; to not allow him to take all the limelight.

And that’s perfectly good advice.

But then, consider for a moment these characters from books most of us have either read, or at least heard about. They are all characters who are supposed to be secondary; there to provide interest, comedy or darkness to the plot, but who are in fact the real stars; they’re the ones who jump out at you from the page and scream, “No! Not him! Look at me!” And we do.

Who does everyone remember most vividly from Great Expectations? I’d say it was Miss Havisham. Pip is certainly the hero, but Miss H is more fun.

Miss Havisham shows Pip how to steal the show.

Or there’s Oliver Twist: he’s a lovable wee thing who we all root for and want to see wrapped up warm and safe in Victorian luxury; but it’s Fagin we all want to be; or Dodger.

Fagin and Dodger decide Oliver will never be as memorable as them.

And stepping away from Dickens, Frodo Baggins has a lot of fun and games throughout the trilogy, but isn’t it Gollum’s character who really shines? Almost as much as the ring?

Gollum ‘s star quality slimes(shines) through.

Is it possible to have a secondary character who is more interesting and memorable than your hero and still write a successful story? Dickens and Tolkein certainly managed it. But is it something that I should allow to happen? I’m no Dickens, so perhaps I should downgrade ‘Really Quite Interesting Secondary Character Number Two’ back to ‘Important, But Not So Visibly Intriguing Secondary Character Number Two’?

Or then again….going back to those examples, none of the secondary characters I’ve mentioned feature anything like as much as do the heroes. They are, after all, Pip’s ‘great expectations’; Oliver is so central to the story, his name’s even on the cover; and it’s Frodo’s mission to get rid of that dangerously alluring ring. So maybe that’s my answer: leave my secondary character as he is; perhaps even embellish him a bit more; but keep his stage (page) time down and stop him hogging the lights.

It gives me something to think about anyway, whilst I shuffle those ‘issues’ which are now neatly stacked alongside the first draft.