Friday, 16 December 2016

"The Promise of the Child" by Tom Toner



The Promise of the Child

by Tom Toner

Gollancz ISBN 978-1-473-21137-7



“Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” was supposedly said by the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola. The minute I encountered Aaron at the start of this novel I thought ‘Jesuit’! Okay, maybe that’s just me, but still – this is how Aaron operates. He manipulates. But he also makes promises.

The Prologue opens in Prague, 1319, though most of the story is set unimaginably far in the future. Aaron makes the first of his many bargains, this one with a princess who is to bring him her son when he is seven years old. She has no choice. If she doesn’t hand him over, he will die, so she loses him either way. So far, so historical novel. The next section takes a huge leap forward in time. We meet Sotiris, but he’s dreaming. He understands this is an illusion, he knows what is going on. St Ignatius Loyola (yes, I’m thinking Jesuits again) also experienced a series of visions which appeared as “a form in the air near him and this form gave him much consolation because it was exceedingly beautiful ... He received much delight and consolation from gazing upon this object ... but when the object vanished he became disconsolate”. After Sotiris’ dream, we’re flung straight into classic space opera territory with a fortress under attack, various species mentioned, names that are clearly sci-fi. There is something called the ‘Shell’ that needs protecting, but no clues yet as to what that is. At this point the reader who has noticed there is a glossary at the back of the book will be breathing a sigh of relief, as the names and races are adding up rapidly. 

Now then, if you don’t customarily read fantasy or sci-fi, you will probably give up at this point, fling the book down saying, too many races, too many characters, too many weird names, too much unexplained, too much chopping and changing between places and scenarios. If you persevere, however, you’ll realise you’ve got to the end of the prologue, and Part One is about to begin. The various strands will now start to be woven together, though it will be several hundred pages before you’re sure how everything relates. You’re about to meet Lycaste, and he’s going to be your guide through pretty much everything that happens from now on, which is useful because he doesn’t understand it either so we’re all in the same boat.

I’m not going to give away any more of the story, because I’m trying to tell you what it’s about, not what happens, and that’s an entirely different thing. For me, this first volume of the trilogy is about the corruption of innocence, but other readers will see different themes. There are echoes of Faust, Kierkegaard, Jonathan Swift, even the Epic of Gilgamesh, but I’ll come back to them. The whole thing is wildly weird until you start seeing it in its own terms. It is undoubtedly a great piece of complex world-building, in the grand tradition started by ‘Dune’, a book which knocked me sideways when I first read it all those years ago. The book is similarly high concept, though its world is entirely different. I’m glad it avoids the extremes of the modern steam-punk trend, while still giving a healthy nod in that direction with its rusting and patched up space ships. There’s nothing glossy and futuristic here, no clean lines; this is baroque, this is mannerist, this is as far from the anodyne sparseness of old-style futuristic sci-fi as you can get. It’s also a very long way from being hard sci-fi, and aficionados of that genre are regrettably not going to be gripped. They’ll dismiss it as soft fantasy, which is a shame. Sci-fi does not necessarily need to be bristling with hard science to be effective.

If it’s not sci-fi exactly, should we file it under fantasy? It certainly comes under that umbrella through its use of its own mythology, but it’s not sword and sorcery fantasy by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m pleased to report there are no bearded wizards in tall hats.

What we do have is intricate plotting. A large number of promises and bargains are made and broken as the story moves from the tiniest details of a young man on a beach, to a vast breakdown of society at a cosmic level. The strength of the telling is in the fact that the fate of the young man matters to the reader, more and more, and the ‘great events’ that are going on may be vitally important and inform everything that happens to Lycaste, but it’s the man himself whom we grow to care about, on a personal level.

Kierkegaard said, “...every historical era will have its own Faust.” I’m not saying our era has an exact equivalent in this novel, but some striking parallels are undoubtedly there, which I will leave you to discover. Ditto the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life. Gilgamesh learns that “Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands”. If people don’t die though – what then? Jonathan Swift was the first writer in the modern era to fictionalise this concept. In Gulliver’s travels, eternal life is a curse, as the extremely elderly become more and more decrepit as the years go by. Very few film versions of the story include this nightmarish section of the book. We prefer little people and giants – and they happen to turn up in ‘The Promise of the Child’ too. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, only two humans have ever been granted immortality, and when seeking these immortals, Gilgamesh enters a paradise full of jewel-laden trees; and ‘The Promise of the Child’ is also full of paradises, of Utopias – but these are where the incredibly old go because they have become insane.

There are people in this book who are effectively immortal; they are ‘perennial’, and while there are enough of them, the old contracts hold, there is peace – but even perennials can be killed, and their numbers are falling. Old age won’t get them, they are relatively safe from that, though they will go quietly insane eventually. But anyone can have a fatal accident, often in the most banal circumstances. Throughout the novel, vast wars are being waged and old alliances are being destroyed. Aaron sees it all and knows precisely what he wants from the outcome. He is getting close. Sotiris knows what he wants too. As readers, we start rooting for Sotiris, but even he will use people, sometimes cruelly if he has to. The critical point is this: Sotiris has – or had – a sister. Aaron knows this, and uses the knowledge.  

But we also know, and have known all along, that there’s something downright odd about Aaron’s shadow.

Ultimately, perhaps what this book is asking is the perennial question of what it means to be human – and its corollary: what does it mean to be something else entirely?
  

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

"Contracts" by P J Walters









Publisher: Waggledance Press; 1 edition (30 Oct. 2016)
ISBN-13: 978-0956966827

The blurb to this book tells the reader that everything in this story is fake, even the name of the main character – it talks about being on the run, being washed up, doing one last job. Blurbs are there to get you to pick up the book, to think, yeah, that sounds like a decent thriller; to make you put your hand in your pocket and dig out the cash. The cover is dark. Bleak. You think you know what you’re getting. You think this is going to be straightforward genre fiction.

But is it? Is this really just a standard crime thriller, read it once, forget it? I don’t think so. I think it’s far, far subtler than the blurb would lead you to believe. True, it’s full of ‘stuff’ happening. Scene after scene winds up the tension ready for the explosive and shocking finale which incidentally, is foreshadowed brilliantly halfway through novel. It’s not so much what happens at that point, but what John, the narrator, says in one of his occasional soliloquies that punctuate the action where he talks about the lack of imagination he sees in the ‘easy-going criminals’ who make up his circle. The emptiness of their thought processes means they cannot see how their actions are going to have real, devastating and horrifying consequences that are beyond their wildest imaginings – the point being that they are incapable of having those imaginings in the first place. There are disasters, tragedies, waiting to happen, and they’ll never see them coming until it’s too late. They simply don’t think. 

John, on the other hand is a thinker. He tries to switch his thinking off, along with his emotions, but that high-functioning brain of his is there in the background all the time, even when he’s numbing it with drink or the excessive workouts with which he abuses his body in his search for oblivion. His life is a downward spiral. He can see this. He has imagination. But even he can’t see the ending.

PJ Walters has produced a hilariously self-deprecating biography for the purposes of this publication. In it, he says: PJ Walters is an academic and writer with the most lacklustre CV in modern British history. He once won an Arts Council award for his writing, but it’s now worn off. The best thing that can be said about him is that he owns a nice hat. Yes, the hat is very nice. I’ve seen photos. But Walters is far more than an academic with a hat. Much of ‘Contracts’ is filmic, much of it very noir, and it’s clear that this is an area which Walters understands intimately. Each scene is perfectly choreographed – it’s ready to be filmed. This is the book of the film that is yet to be made. Walters directs it with exemplary skill, but he bypasses the need for the expense of production – he projects the story directly into his readers’ brains. The language he uses is an object lesson in invisible excellence. You stop noticing you’re reading at all. That’s how it should be.  

It’s not all darkness. There is some humour, though it’s pretty bleak. I particularly enjoyed the excruciating journey John takes when Euan is driving for a change, and he has his CD on auto-play, continually repeating a mind-numbing thumping beat at unbearably high volume. We’ve all had vehicles like that drive past us – it makes a change to be inside one, but this is precisely what this book does so well. Walters takes us inside every aspect of the underworld that his anti-hero inhabits.

The novel is called ‘Contracts’, and it’s a great title, multi-layered, many possible interpretations, but it’s left to the reader to decide precisely what they think it means, beyond the obvious.

So it’s a thriller, yes, and a very good one at that. But it also crosses over into literary fiction because it never spoonfeeds the reader, it never explains. This is not airport fiction. This is a thought provoking and disturbing novel that will get under the reader’s skin in a way which many throwaway thrillers can only dream about, if they have the imagination. But that’s just the point. They don’t.

Monday, 14 November 2016

"I Am A Refugee" by Camillo Adler





‘I Am A Refugee’ by Camillo Adler, Trans. Michel Adler
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (February 8, 2013)
ISBN: 978-1477664087

I was at a writing event the other week, when one of the ladies there said she was embarking on an account of her mother and aunt’s lives as part of the Kindertransport. She was nervous about writing it, and I sympathised, having written my own mother’s biography with all the details of her life as a ‘hidden child’ in central Europe. These books are very hard to write so long after the event, when memories are fading. Camillo Adler, on the other hand, was writing while everything was happening. His words are immediate. They are raw. They are never filtered through hindsight. His son, Michel Adler, didn’t even know these writings existed until relatively recently, but once he found them, it was clear he would have to translate them into English and get them published. He recognised, as anyone who reads this book will, that these things matter; they matter vitally.

I didn’t realise quite how much until I’d finished the book.

There is much rhetoric being flung about at the moment about ‘the other’; people who are not ‘us’; people who come to be seen as less than human. That dreaded word, ‘Refugees’ and its close cousin ‘asylum seeker’ – both of which are almost becoming pejorative terms these days. These refugees, fleeing death and destruction, are depicted in the mainstream media as a problem for us – we don’t understand why they don’t go back where they came from, we don’t want them to take ‘our’ jobs, we fear many of them are terrorists and will blow us up. We don’t stop to think that the only reason they are refugees is in many instances because we have bankrolled and supported the actions of those who have blown up their homes.

Refugees are ‘wrong’ somehow. They will infect us with their wrongness. We can’t take them in. Send them somewhere else.

But any one of us could become a refugee. Any one of us could become ‘the other’.

Camillo Adler’s book starts off as a straightforward account of what went on, of how he went from being a perfectly valued member of society to being that hated thing, the refugee, the foreigner who isn’t wanted. Add in the problems of anti-Semitism, and he was always going to have a horrendously hard time as WWII approached and then broke out. The book describes his experiences in the Foreign Legion and various internment camps, and makes for a gripping read, especially with the human interest angle of enforced separation from his wife and sons – but then it changes tack, and the last few chapters are, for me, what makes this so much more than simply ‘another’ holocaust memoir.

Camillo Adler is a thinker. A philosopher in all but name. At the end of the book there are a number of essays in which he explores what causes the refugee phenomenon, and what it means to people to be stateless. For you or I, if we get into trouble in a foreign land, we can call on the consulate to help us out. But if you no longer have a state? There is nobody. You are utterly reliant on the goodwill of strangers.

This section of the book is not an easy read, but it is a very important read. I think this should be a taught book in universities, both in history and philosophy faculties.

I only came across this book because Michel Adler, the translator, was looking into the family tree and my name came up. I didn’t even know of his existence, but we discovered we are second cousins, and we got chatting by email, and decided to read each other’s books to learn more about our mutual families.

I’m so glad we did. 

Friday, 25 March 2016

It’s Grim Oop North


It’s grim oop North.Except that it isn’t. This morning was spectacularly sunny in Bishop Auckland, so I thought I’d pop down to the bank and maybe go for a little wander. Bank? On Good Friday? Yes, it was shut. Thing is, I’m not exactly an observer of these sorts of things. I knew I had a violin pupil coming later today, but she’s a Buddhist, so I doubted she’d notice it was Good Friday either.

I stood in front of the automatic bank door for a few moments wondering why it wouldn’t open, then twigged and moved on, at which point I was accosted by a multitude of immaculately turned out young men in suits who one by one greeted me with ‘Hello darling,’ or ‘Hello love,’ followed by an eager enquiry as to who supplied my gas and electricity. They were cheery and it was a sunny day so I didn’t tell them where they could put their gas and electricity, merely hoped they’d have a nice day, and moved on.

It’s late March. It’s spring. It hasn’t felt like spring up to this point despite the mini-daffs in the back yard, but this morning it felt like the sun had remembered the clocks change this weekend to British Summer Time and was hurriedly making spring happen all in one day. I remembered I had my shiny new mobile phone with me and determined to take springy pictures with it. First port of call would be the town hall – which was looking bright and shiny, but the trees in front of it were still convinced it was the dead of winter, so it all looked a bit bare. I left the camera in my bag.




I proceeded in an orderly fashion through the market-free market place and towards the Bishop’s gaffe. His (former) abode was also looking great in the sunshine, so I snapped a pic, but it wasn’t shouting out SPRING! Not to worry. There was the park beyond, and there would have to be something flowering there. I’d make for the deer house, because that’s photogenic, irrespective of the seasons, and along the way I started thinking about stories, poems, and the whole place was a poem. I would absorb it, use it later.

One forgets quite how intensely blue the sky can be at this time of the year and in this part of the world. We’re relatively smog-free here in Bishop Auckland; far enough away from the pall that hangs over Teesside except when the wind is in a mean direction, which is very rare. The air is good, and it wasn’t yet too heavy with daffodil pollen, something which is guaranteed to give me cheese-grater throat.



I climbed the slight rise to the deer house and surveyed the view. Across the River Wear there’s a building site at the moment as they construct the arena and stadium for ‘Kynren’, the vast open air show that is coming our way in under 100 days. People have booked tickets for it from as far away as China apparently. At the moment, it’s a mass of metal and wood on a flood plain which used to be the soggy golf links beside the Wear. The mind boggles at the transformation that’s going on. I worry what will happen to the show if we get a rainy summer, but we always get rainy summers here so I’m sure they’ve thought of that and will be able to cope. Hundreds of people are involved. There will be horses. Everyone loves horses, so it can’t fail.



The deer house is spectacular in a much smaller and more intimate way, and in the past they’ve had little theatrical performances up here, and folk singers, stuff like that, rather than the extravagant picnics for hunting parties that used to happen. The deer are long gone, but sheep wander up here sometimes. Today it was looking very beautiful, but still a bit wintery despite the deep blue of the sky. I continued down, off the mound, and crossed the foolish River Gaunless. ‘foolish’ because ‘Gaunless’ is apparently the Viking word for ‘gormless’, so they clearly didn’t think much of it either. The poor old river always looks to be nastily polluted by old mine workings so it’s a bit dead, but there were people playing Pooh sticks on one of the medieval bridges, which was cheering.



Across the bridge, the parkland becomes less formal, and at last I started seeing signs of spring. Alongside a stream there was a clump of coltsfoot, and much of the grassland near the trees was sprinkled with celandines – in the distance I could see gorse bushes in flower, so I snapped away, each vista looking more delightful than the last.



I hadn’t intended to come this far, but now that I had I thought I might as well continue to the obelisk, a mini-pyramid that caps a well connected to some old underground cisterns. It stands in the middle of a field, and normally I would have photographed it, but I didn’t today because the field was full of ponies and sheep, and more importantly, lambs! Yes! Spring! Evidence at last. I kept well clear. Didn’t want to disturb them. They would get enough of that from the families with young kids that were following me up the footpath and clearly intending to cross the field. 



I turned and went back down the hill, feeling fitter and stronger than I have for a long, long, time, but that’s what spring can do to you. I love winter, I love its snugness, its curling under the duvetness; I love long dark nights, hot baths, woolly hats. I love the sharpness of autumn, the frosts, the bonfire smell of November. I’ve never thought much of spring in the past. It’s been late coming, but there’s something in the air that’s different this year. Not sure what it is. When I was walking back along one of the soft green lanes, I imagined horses cantering up behind me, and it wasn’t the horses from Kynren across the river; it was a memory, though clearly not my own, of one of the hunting parties from centuries ago. They weren’t there, and I didn’t really hear them, but they were damned close, and I almost did.



Arriving back at the Bishop’s Castle, and not feeling quite ready to go home yet, I popped into the old library café and had a pot of real tea served with a proper tea strainer and slop basin, and one of their homemade cheese and spring onion scones, which was meltingly delicious, as expected. They’re going to close the place to visitors for eighteen months or so from September in order to carry out major conservation work – and anyway, the famed Zurburan paintings are going to be off on their hols round the world, so the main draw of the place won’t be there – so I’m making the most of my season ticket, and visiting as often as I can. After my tea I went into the quiet of the chapel. I am emphatically not a religious person, but the chapel, which used to be the banqueting hall and is possibly the largest private chapel in the land – is very, very beautiful, and it’s good to sit there in the coloured light for a while and get stuff sorted out in your head.

After my twenty minutes’ or so recovery time, I left via the shop where I saw they had some greetings cards by local artist Bob McManners, and jolly nice they were too, so I bought one. Dr Bob can’t half paint. On the way back home through Newgate Street I cheerfully told the immaculately dressed young men that no, I still didn’t want to change my gas or electricity suppliers. They seemed delighted. They certainly smiled a lot.

Spring! What a season. I could get to like it after all.


Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Return of the Charity Shop LP

I walked into town this morning intending to buy some milk and go and sit in the library and do some writing. I’d armed myself with notebook, pen, and a list of writing prompts. All set. Only problem was the ‘quiet’ area of the library that has tables and chairs was occupied by a loud and patronising lady who was being slightly horrible to a lad of about eleven as she tutored him in something or other. I left. Went upstairs to the café, because after all, how hard can it be to find a quiet table at ten in the morning and sit with a cup of tea and write something? They had sandwiches, which wasn’t fair, so I had to have one (roast beef and spinach). Once I’d eaten that, and looked around at the other café folk – mostly gents of a certain age reading the complimentary copies of the Daily Mail – I realised it just wasn’t going to happen. I would buy my milk and go back home to write. I hate writing by hand anyway. Be much easier at home on the computer.

Still had to buy the milk, so I wandered down Newgate Street towards Heron, picked up a couple of pints, and thought I might as well pop into some charity shops on the way back. I usually do themed shopping – one week I might look for books, another for oddments of china. This week I noticed they had started doing LPs again. It’s been a good few years. These shops always used to have piles of them, mostly Jim Reeves and Barry Manilow, but then CDs came in and pretty much took over; we were told the sound was better and they’d last forever (ha!). Charity shops, certainly round here, stopped collecting and selling them, and most of us stopped listening to them.

Fast forward a few years and us diehard LP fans have been joined by a load of people from a much younger generation who for one reason or another love their turntables and want to be able to buy records to play on them. I invested in a turntable a few years ago when they just started becoming available again, mostly because I have an extensive collection of LPs and 78s and wanted to have the option of listening to them, but oddly I never did, so the turntable has been gathering dust.

One of the first charity shops I went in this morning had a mountain of LPs and they were only a pound each and so I thought, okay, have a look, there won’t be anything, but why not. It was curiously nostalgic to bump into Gentleman Jim Reeves again. I must admit, I’ve never heard anything by him. He might be quite good – but then again, the fact that he is always, without fail, in charity shops suggests that maybe he isn’t if so many people have been so keen to get rid of his records. I have no problem with Barry Manilow, and am surprised that he turns up so often. Apart from that, all the usual suspects were there, everyone from Liberace to Herb Alpert, who actually isn’t too bad, but still not really my cup of tea. This shop had a lot more, however. It had rude rugby songs. It had Johann Strauss waltzes. It had something I couldn’t read because it was in Hebrew. It had Frank Ifield. Definitely an eclectic mix, so I had a good look through and came away with a number of records: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ Symphony in a classic recording by Vernon Handley; the Schumann and Grieg piano concertos played by Radu Lupu; and a couple of records of masses by William Byrd and Josquin, sung by the Tallis Scholars. I looked at them all carefully and all appeared unmarked. The Josquin was still in a sealed package so had never been played.

Back home, I tried to play the Vaughan Williams. Nothing happened. Looked round the back, realised the turntable wasn’t plugged in. Felt slightly silly. Plugged it in, tried again, and it worked – the sound was crystal clear. Utterly beautiful. While it was playing I wrote a half decent poem with almost no effort at all. Then I put the Grieg on, then the Schumann. I’m listening to that one now. The Byrd comes next. I’ll quite likely write a short story while that’s playing, and will soon reach the thousand words a day I’ve been aiming at as a minimum since the start of December.  

We all write differently. Some writers can go into cafés and coffee shops and libraries and find endless inspiration by observing the characters who come and go; some people do the same thing on trains. I write to music. Not always – sometimes I write to a rugby match on the telly. But music, I think, works best. I’m not sure why it isn’t a distraction. When I was doing A level music at school and had to write a piece of music for homework, I would often annoy my mother by doing it with the radio on. It did genuinely help my concentration, bizarre as it may seem. Of course it’s different if you’re writing words rather than music, but I’m still not quite sure why it works. It’s not that it provides a sort of white noise that can be tuned out, because I’m well aware of what I’m hearing while I write. A neurologist might be able to tell me what’s going on, but I certainly don’t know.

All I know is I’ve bought some records, and that’s something I haven’t done in years, and I’m getting a terrific buzz from listening to them. They might well give my writing a spur, give it more depth – make it better simply because I’ll be in a better ‘zone’ (horrible word) at the moment.

The Josquin, however, is special. That’s being reserved for when I’m painting. It would be wasted on writing.




Friday, 18 March 2016

Keyboards and Tea



The portrait of Hemingway is now framed and hanging over my workspace. If I’m struggling with whatever I’m writing, I can look up, see him busy at work, and get back to my own magnus opus. He’s using pen and paper, and will no doubt type it all up later. If by any mischance he should happen to spill his drink on his typewriter, the machine will still work. The paper might be spoilt, but he can put in a clean sheet and carry on almost as if nothing untoward has happened.

Computers, though...

Yesterday evening I realised I was behind with my writing, so made myself a mug of tea and sat down at the pc to write. I had an idea formulated already, just had put it into words and type it up. I started, reached for my tea, and spilt the whole scalding mugful all over the pc’s keyboard. I have never done such a thing before, so I suppose I assumed it would never happen. I unplugged the keyboard, tipped it over, and half a pint of boiling hot tea came out and all over me and the carpet (goodness knows where I thought it was going to go).

Not the end of the world. I might not be able to write by hand due to illegibility problems, and I might not own a typewriter, but I do have a laptop, so after a modicum of quiet swearing, I booted it up and started again. Trouble is, I don’t write well on my laptop. It’s not comfortable. The keyboard is horribly sensitive and it jumps about if I accidentally lean my arm on the edge. After a few sentences I knew this was never going to work. I thought I’d try the pc again, see how bad it was. I’d left the keyboard sitting on a radiator, so I now got a roll of kitchen paper blotted as much tea out as I could and then plugged it back in. At first, all seemed fine, though the numbers were a bit haywire. Then I pressed ‘shift’ and the computer promptly shut down.

I took the keyboard upstairs and gave it a good blast with the hair dryer on high setting until it was definitely absolutely bone dry. Brought it back down, plugged it in again. The shift key still shut down the pc. It must have short-circuited somehow because of the heat of the tea, which had been barely off boiling point. This was at about seven fifteen in the evening, and I was exhausted – I’d been out earlier and bought a smart phone. This is something I have never owned before, always thinking I didn’t really need one, but that morning my ISP had gone down for hours, and it had absolutely done my head in. I rely very heavily on email and had no way of accessing it. I occasionally get publishers emailing and asking for an immediate response as to whether a piece is still available for publication – I didn’t want to miss anything of this type, so connectivity had to be found somehow. I suppose taking the laptop to an internet café would have been a possibility, but that’s one hell of a palaver, so it had to be a smart phone. I’m sure anyone reading this has one already and knows exactly how to use it, but I’ve only ever had the sort of basic phone that costs £4.50 from Carphone Warehouse and does nothing whatsoever other than make phone calls and texts using a prohibitively expensive pay as you go scheme that discourages you from using at all except in emergencies. This means I can barely operate one of those, let alone an all bells and whistles modern machine. But I went out and I bought one, and a nice gentleman demonstrated all its functions and I nodded as if I was following, brought it home and switched it on and thought; so how do I make a phone call? And couldn’t work it out, though I did manage to set up various email accounts and facebook and stuff like that, which had been the point of the machine in the first place. But this had all taken time. I’d been busy drawing Hemingway all morning, and had spent too much time in the afternoon trying to work out how to make a phone call, so I hadn’t even begun to write – and that’s why I’d sat down with my mug of tea later on, and thrown it all over the keyboard.

Seven fifteen, and I really was tired, but I jumped in the car and hurtled down to Tesco’s which luckily is a 24 hour one, and bought a £6 keyboard, hurtled back, plugged it in, and wrote over 2000 words of a short story. I haven’t dared read it back. It possibly is one of the worst things I’ve ever written, but at least I wrote it. I’m trying for a minimum of 1000 words a day at the moment, and have managed it for several months, so it was a relief to have got something down.

I have Ernest Hemingway staring down at me at the moment, telling me to stop doing blog posts and write something publishable – a decent short story or a poem. Quite right too. I’ll get to it, just as soon as I’ve made myself another cup of tea – which for safety’s sake will NOT be placed next to the computer keyboard.  

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Dark Pictures and Pretty Birdies



After the near debacle where I almost painted over a large oil painting of Gordale Scar which turned out to have been sold on the Saatchi site, I have decided I need to be far more organised about this arty stuff that I do. It is, after all, in part how I earn my living. So in the last couple of days I’ve been rummaging in my ‘studio’ (ie the small bedroom that’s been knee-deep in paintings, art materials and cardboard boxes since my daughter moved out) and finding what I have that’s in good nick and has not been painted over. The idea is to sort out saleable pictures and put them online, and then, more importantly, remember that they’re there so that I’m not taken by surprise when one sells out of the blue.

What I have discovered in my rummaging is a series of very sweet pictures. I had quite forgotten that I used to do detailed watercolours of birds. They’re pretty little things, but I don’t really do ‘pretty’ in my art these days. Art output reflects state of mind, so it makes me wonder what weird place I was in when I did them – I suspect they were straight escapism, and I must have been having problems to have painted in such a twee manner. Nowadays if I paint very dark it’s not because I’m depressed; it’s because I’m relishing facing my demons. I have had plenty. There’s the whole health thing, for starters. I’ve now had ME/CFS for more than sixteen years, so I’m used to it and I have recovered to a certain extent. The early years were grotesquely awful, and included a spell in hospital that was the stuff of nightmares – everyone on the ward apart from me was going down with one of those vomiting and diarrhoea bugs so the stench was appalling. They would rinse out their soiled knickers in the hand wash basins and then put them on radiators round the ward to dry. Then they’d come and sit on my bed as it was the nearest to the toilets. I was unable to get out of bed, being too sick – had to wait for a nurse to wheel me to the loo, where I’d get left, forgotten, for long periods of time. No wonder I wasn’t in the happiest of places in the years that immediately followed; no wonder I painted pretty little birds in watercolours.

I’ve probably grossed out everyone reading this by now, but I’ll continue anyway. No more vomiting, I promise.

So what was I saying? Oh yes. Apart from the ME/CFS, there was the fact that I’d gone through a long period of bringing up three children on my own, the eldest of whom was severely disabled, and that had been tough – it was when the eldest finally went into full time respite care because I could no longer cope that my whole system collapsed and I went down with ME. My worst spell coincided with my daughter doing her GCSEs, which can’t have been any fun for her.

There are some landscapes from that period too – even a little country cottage, as twee as twee can be.

Some of the little birds are now up on the Saatchi site. There are a few more to go, but I ran out of strength for looking at such loveliness. It made me feel weird to see them, but other people will probably like them, so it doesn’t feel right to leave them at the bottom of a box.

As the ME gradually eased off, and my eldest daughter settled well into her new home, and my younger daughter got super GCSE results – and my boyfriend was still managing to stick with me despite everything – things started to look up. That was when my paintings started getting darker, culminating in the fierce and ferocious painting of Gordale Scar, that was even too dark for me, which is why I was going to paint over at least part of it. The sky was simply too threatening – but someone saw it, liked it, and bought it. Maybe that someone found something exhilarating in the darkness and the brooding atmosphere. Any artist who goes there feels the same thing, though we all have different ways of expressing it. I was staying in Malhamdale last summer, which was why I was able to visit and do sketches and take loads of photos. My photos show blue skies, so I’m not sure why I felt moved to paint the sky in a shade of mud, but there’s something about the place; the way the dark brown rocks overhang, the way you feel as if you’re in a huge subterranean cavern even when you can see the sky, the unique flora, the mad rock climbers who actually think the sides are climbable, and regularly fall off and swing helplessly at the end of ropes. It’s one hell of a place. It’s also very close to Malham Cove, with its otherworldly limestone pavement, and its subterranean river, which last year, due to excessive amounts of rain, suddenly for a few brief days turned into a spectacular waterfall before creeping back underground, embarrassed.

It’s a place that is gloriously alive, and when you’ve had ME, still have it but are significantly better, you DO feel gloriously alive. I still can’t walk very far or very reliably, and am often in a lot of pain, but I was lucky that I was in sufficiently robust health for a few days to walk from the car park up to Gordale Scar and also to Malham Cove, because if you’re going to paint those places you need to be there; you have absolutely no way of doing it purely from photos, and if you’re going to use photos, you have to have taken them yourself (which obviously means you’ve been there). It is dramatic, it is life affirming. It is very, very dark, even when the sun is shining and the Malham Cove’s limestone pavement is gleaming white, it has a glorious darkness to it that cries out to be painted, and Gordale Scar itself, even in the brightest sunshine has deep, deep shadows.

So I painted what I felt, and I went darker and darker trying to get what I could see down on the canvas, trying to get underneath the surface of this place and paint what it was doing to me, its fantastic, dark energy – and I think either I overdid it, or I’m simply not skilled enough to be able to paint the way I want when I do landscapes. I’m more at home with portraits, and although a landscape is a portrait of sorts, the more obvious kind is easier for me. Having painted what to me was an unsatisfactory picture, I put it away, it got covered with other bits of detritus, but I knew it was there, and because materials to paint on are expensive, I knew I would paint over it one day and try to get closer to what I meant in the first place – but somebody bought it! Who knows what I might have painted, given the chance. I have another canvas that has undergone a major transformation. It started off on one of my exceedingly rare TV appearances – I was in the Glasgow heats of the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year competition, and had to paint actress Sophie Turner. I had a great time, enjoyed myself, but when I got the painting home I realised it really wasn’t very good, so I turned it on its side and painted a view of St Paul’s Cathedral over the top of it. I’m now tired of the view of St Paul’s, so will paint something else over that.

What it will be, I have no idea. Probably another portrait. I like doing those. Or perhaps I’ll have another go at Gordale Scar. Who knows.