When it Works

Rosie tells me she likes a good book, with a good ending.  We’ve struck up a conversation while standing at the bookstall at the local fete.

As a regular, I’ve seen a lot of the selection before. Some because they have been religiously returned to the village-hall storeroom after each event, others because at some point I had bought, read and then donated them again.  Some of the bindings are disintegrating, many of the pages are fragile, crumbling at a touch.  All of the regulars carry a patina of storage, a kind of dusty texture that forms on books that are rarely used.

The village fete bookstallA lot of my past is embedded in this stall, and each year I spend time re-reading sections of old friends.  They are books that rarely make it to the heap of books I plan taking home, space on my shelf is short enough, but I’m glad to meet them again.  Most have long since disappeared from libraries or even charity shops, they’re the sort of pulp fiction that was published in the 1960s and 70s.

Where do books go when they fall out of favour?  The bin, I suppose.  Call me romantic, but I like to think most at least get recycled into new books rather than mouldering amongst the general landfill.  Meanwhile, the magic of the village bookstall is that you never know what might get turned out of someone’s attic.

Rosie and I compare our bargains and talk fiction.  She likes historical romance.  Her finger marks a page at the back of a novel.

‘Is it any good?’ I say.

‘I liked her first one,’ says Rosie.  ‘It was about pirates.’

I gesture at the workhouse scene on the copy she’s holding. ‘You haven’t read this one?’

She had not. ‘I’m just checking the last two pages,’ she says.  ‘I wont start it unless it ends right.’

‘In case someone gets killed off?’

‘A bit that, but mostly that it feels right.  It’s complicated.’

It is.  An ending is such an important part of the writing.  It is the last impression, the flavour that lingers as you are walking out of the restaurant.  Later, you can clean your teeth, or buy something powerful enough to over-ride the taste, but that was not what the chef, or writer was aiming for, was it?

Rosie had read the cover.  Everything about it, picture, title, author and text told her that the subject was one she could enjoy. Reading it would give her a good feeling, but what Rosie knew was that reading isn’t just about the moment.  A story, long or short, with a strong ending, resonates.  We might carry the mood of it out into our life.

I had a farm in Africa…

Well actually, I didn’t have a farm anywhere, but whenever I remember Isak Dinesen’s, The Ngong Farm, I feel like I could have done, a long time ago.  Or perhaps it’s that I should have done.

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.

Is that the most perfect opening line ever written?  I don’t think so, there are after all, a lot of strong contenders that I like at least equally.  Yet this is the one that is fixed in my mind.  It’s not just that I can quote it, it’s a sentence that resonates at odd moments.  Sometimes really odd moments: like walking round a DIY store yesterday.

Like many of us, I first heard of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen because of the film, Out Of Africa, so the associations this opening-line carries are complicated for me.  The words link to an image of Meryl Streep telling stories to Robert Redford.  That’s beautiful people fulfilling a writer’s fantasy isn’t it, Teller, Tale and Audience in perfect harmony?

Yet it’s more than that.  Those words are not just about the memory of a film, last seen a decade or two ago.  I’m not in the habit of memorizing dialogue.  Something else has fixed this in my mind.  The writer’s ‘voice’ is strong.

Oh yes, ‘The Voice’.  What is that exactly?  We frequently throw that phrase around in writing classes, particularly in beginners groups.  ‘You must have a distinctive voice,’ we say.  Do we mean style?  I don’t think so, at least, not on its own.  As comprehensive as the dictionaries definitions list for style is, it’s not quite the same as voice.

The Pastor's Fireside, by Henry Singleton

The Pastor’s Fireside, by Henry Singleton

Well, obviously, since voice refers to sound, an audible function that might seem incompatible with the written word.  Is it though?  Aren’t we still speaking when we write?  I am.  As I type this, I am sounding each word: testing each phrase in my head.  I can hear my voice.  Actually, occasionally so could someone listening at the door.  (I don’t think that counts as talking to myself, I am definitely addressing a listener, even if they are bodiless.)  Oh dear, when you’re in a hole, stop digging.

All too often we forget the ancestry of the written word is speech, both as writers and readers.  The writers of the nineteenth century didn’t.  Much of their work was intended to be read aloud.  Literacy levels were improving, but authors expected, even hoped that reading would be a participatory activity, something that involved the family.   Reading could be solitary, but check out the paintings and illustrations in Victorian books and you’ll get the message – cosy fireside, family grouping with children gathered at the feet as one of the family read the latest installment of At Home or some other ‘improving’ magazine.

Mother Hubbard imageGradually though, prose moved over to being a personal, individual occupation.  I wonder if it goes with the idea that children should be seen but not heard.  All those paintings of children engrossed, alone… I think books were selling an appealing image on more than one level.

That link to the spoken nature of words remains clearest in poetry I suppose, which often benefits from being read aloud.

Interestingly, I found my copy of Out Of Africa on the shelf next to the poetry, rather than with the other short stories.  I don’t remember how I came to store it there, but thinking about it, it seems like a good place.  Look at the rhythm in my much repeated phrase.  Each word seems to carry weight, to require a thoughtful, careful delivery.  I can’t say or think it fast, I willingly wallow in her rose-lit prose.

She had a farm in Africa…it can only draw me on.  A simple phrase, self contained, and yet full of interest.  Who is this woman on the other side of the page: what is she?

‘Really?’ I think, ‘Tell me more…’

The One That Got Away.

I think I’ve mentioned before, that I don’t often give up on a book.

When I was younger, I liked to boast that I’d never been beaten by words.  This might have been a good trait to hold to, except that I was reading anything that came within reach.  It must have been during those years that I became an expert speed-reader.  So many books: so little time.  I skimmed through the great, the good and the mediocre.

The turning point book for me was Moby Dick, a novel I sought out after finding it mentioned in so many others.  For those who’ve never come across a copy, it’s quite a hefty set of pages.  Still, I’d read plenty of dense Victorian and Edwardians, so I wasn’t intimidated.

Of course I knew the story was about a whaler and that there would have to be some harpooning.  I also knew that the Victorians wore whale-boned corsets, used their oil to fill their lamps and run their machinery, so I understood that whaling was an important industry.  What I didn’t expect was so much detail about the slaughter.

I was a good way into the book.  At least one whale had been caught and dismantled and I think they were chasing another when I realised that he wasn’t going to escape and I wanted more than that he should get away, I wanted him to turn and crush their flimsy boats.

I knew, even then, that I was missing the point: that there was something else I should be getting from the story.  It was not really a fault with the writing.  Even now, I can recall most of the characters.  When they were interacting and just living day to day on the Pequod, I was fascinated.  It is a vividly told story, but as I read, I became increasingly angry.  Angry with a book?

Yes, why not?  If books can make us laugh, cry, fall in love or feel all sorts of other emotions from pity onwards, why not anger?  After all, there was a whole genre of it going on in the 1950s.  But, of course, they were written for us to understand the frustrations of a generation, the angry young men.

Some great and highly readable novels they were too.  I can go back to them again and again, despite the misogynist attitudes they so frequently demonstrate.

I am able to put aside the offence I might feel because these novels belong to their period.  I’m not just talking about classic literature here.  To read something only ten years old can be a reminder of how our values have evolved.  In most cases, where the writing is good, these texts remind us of what has gone before.

Since Moby Dick, there have been other novels I’ve given up on.  Some of them are now back on my shelf, and I hope to make time to try them again.  Despite my best intentions, that may or may not happen.  Each year I find titles I’ve missed, or hear about new releases that intrigue me, and that’s not even counting the time I spend on trying to keep up with short stories.

Finding Story.

DSCF4872We agreed that we wouldn’t need much.  We would only be away three nights, after all, but then the weather could go either way and walking these days is not simply a case of wearing a coat and a pair of boots.

We seemed to be kitting up for the arctic, and we’re nothing like as labelled as we could be.  In addition to our regular clothes, there were four sets of walking poles, fleeces and over-trousers, as well as the binoculars, camera, compass, map.  So by the time we added in the laptop (there would be WiFi, after all) and the groceries that would perish before we got back, the boot was crammed.

It is an ambition of mine to travel light, to be the kind of person who carries one small back-pack for their holiday.  The trouble is, I can never be certain what the essentials are until the holiday is over.

It’s the same with writing.  Sometimes I know exactly what I’m going to say and can keep myself to the point easily.  More usually, I don’t keep to the idea I started out with, and it’s not until I find an ending that I can go back through my writing and see which segments I don’t need.

I’m not a planner, you see.  Even with holidays I tend to have only a rough idea of what I would like to do while we’re away.  We probably don’t get the most out of our time, but we often find unexpected gems that way.

Take Llandovery, for instance.

We’d already had lunch out, so we were only looking to pick up a few things for a snack tea.  Which should have been simple, but by the time we’d meandered across The Black Mountain, frequently stopping to admire the view, most of the shops we passed were closed.  What we needed, we realised, was a town, and Llandovery was near our route home.

It was busier than we expected, and smaller.  The main route through was a twisting street, lined with painted houses, cafes and little shops that passed by too quickly to take in.  It was the wrong time of day for indecisive tourists.  Working people were trying to get home.

We turned a corner for the car park and the view changed from dumpy houses to castle ruins.  The pay-and-display, black tarmac and white lines, butts up to two sides of the steep grassy mound that was the base of Llandovery castle.

I hadn’t done my research, I was not expecting the broken boulder wall, let alone the shining white Knight standing guard over the car-park.  It was a simple outline of a figure, without face or body.  In fact, to compile the components is to list helmet, cloak, sword, spear and shield.

What it was, of course is art.  Something far harder to pin down.  A story, we are told is a beginning, a middle and an end.  The art is in finding the right place to begin it, building it with just enough words to settle an image, and then stopping it in the place that creates the greatest resonance in the reader.

Sometimes it’s fascinating to see the minutely accurate features of our history.  Realistic representations of life have their own artistic merit.  But, it’s worth thinking about what happens when we leave some things out.

Could that monument have had such a powerful effect on me if the artist had created form and feature for Llewelyn ap Gruffyd Fychan?