Rooftop

I have a great love for the roof in children’s literature, driven of course by the pure delight of RooftoppersRooftoppers by Katherine Rundell but also, in a wider cultural context, things like Mary Poppins and that incomparable rooftop dance scene in Strictly Ballroom. Roofs are places where you’re not meant to be and so to find yourself there is a shy, subtle delight.

There’s maybe not an obvious connection between roofs and the A14 Project I’m currently working on down in Cambridge, but if you dig deep enough it’s definitely there. And yes I’m mixing my metaphors but I rather love the idea of a road and solid, firm ground being connected to something heightened and dizzy and full of a thousand different angles. There’s such a similarity between the words as well; roof and road, only two letters between them and yet they’re on opposite poles of the spectrum. I like it when word are similar and yet miles apart; it’s something I came across when I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. SlayerSayer. Saver. Semantic knots, and the untangling thereof, are fun. 

Rooftops Cambridge

 

Rooftop

I press my face to the window

let my breath sear and scar

the glass with clouds as dark

and firm as the rain that comes

after you’ve spent three hours in the hairdressers

and had your hair blow dried

to a level you’ll never be able to replicate.

Outside, the roofs swing from left to right

like bunting at a village fair

the backdrop to jam and scones

and awe-inspiring women that could take over the world

but settle instead for chutney

and tote bags.

The roofs rise to salute them

to pay tribute to their mastery

their ability to mull wine

to slow clap

to know how to get stains out of things I can barely pronounce

and as the wind starts to rise,

as my nose touches the glass,

the ribbon is cut

and the show’s declared open.

Advertisements

The River

As I settle down for another few days of my residency at Madingley Hall, Cambridge, I wanted to share a piece that’s been growing over the past few weeks. It’s small but lived, as it were, and comes from an urge to capture the ‘noise’ of a road. Sound isn’t an easy thing to capture in written work but really, it’s there all along. We just sometimes forget how to recognise it. Anyway, enough soapboxing! Here’s ‘The River’…

 

The River
There’s a thick, fat rush of sound,
there behind the trees,
and for a long moment I can’t figure out what it is
but then I realise that it’s a river,
storm-swollen to the shade
of a dark winter sky,
and that’s the slap of the wind there
oh the fearless ways of such weather
that leaves you boneless and raw,
and it’s the constancy of this sound,
more than anything,
that makes me realise that
this is no river,
it’s a flood
and the trees are wrapped with silt
and the grey lace of rising waters.

The mist, the bus and Anne Brontë’s grave

I had handed my thesis in a few days earlier and was wrapped in emotions that I didn’t quite yet understand. The crying at everything had stopped or, rather, ceased, so that I could now walk down the street without sobbing at a tree, but I still wasn’t quite myself. This is the part of research that nobody seems to tell you about; the lull before the end, the moment where you hand in a piece of work which holds blood, sweat and tears, and then suddenly it’s gone off to be marked by somebody and you just have to continue. You keep on keeping on. The world keeps turning. You write papers, and book proposals, and job applications. You keep going because that’s what you do now, that’s what research has made you able to do: you survive.

And it was because of that, that I found myself walking into town one day with the intent of finding a desk somewhere, buying a drink, but within minutes found myself on a bus to Scarborough. It’s a trip that’s familiar to me but one that, on the bus, takes something of a different tone. Buses are odd, delightful things with their colour combinations and their habits of stopping by a random hedge somewhere which turns out to be a bus stop. The new bus, too, the unfamiliar route, that’s something quite delicious that hovers on the edge of panic and excitement all the time; will you miss your stop? Will you even catch the bus in the first place, or will you be destined to traipsing home along the hard shoulder somewhere or scrubbing your pennies together to make enough for a taxi?

Sign to Anne Brontë's graveI went to Scarborough to visit the grave of Anne Brontë.

Back in 1849,  Anne Brontë passed away in Scarborough. Something about Charlotte’s decision to ‘lay the flower where she had fallen’ and have Anne buried in St Mary’s churchyard, as opposed to bringing her back to Haworth, cuts to the very essence of grief for me.

Scarborough is a strange place; elements of the old town push up against amusements and chip shops, rendering a landscape that doesn’t quite know what it should be or indeed when it should be. I had a mad moment of delight when I realised that a second hand bookshop I first went to about twenty years ago still existed and an even stranger sensation when I realised that the children’s books were in the same place on the shelf. Who knows what will be there in another twenty years?

Anne Brontë's graveAnne’s grave is located just outside of what may be seen as the ‘main’ graveyard. The wall in the picture is the barrier between the graveyard and the road, but it’s also easy to figure out where the grave is due to the throngs of people. I sat there for a while, watching and listening, because I am Northern and had paid a fair whack to get there, but also because it’s fascinating. This is a site of literary pilgrimage and it’s one that is active. In about ten minutes, I witnessed a whole host of visitors quietly trek into the graveyard and study the slim, eroded headstone and the plaque and to talk of how beautiful it was here for her.

(Oh that beautiful “her”. That conscious acknowledgement of a person and of personhood; that recognition of living, of life…!)

There was a gentleman sat on the bench next to me and we got to talking. He showed me a picture he had of the grave back when the headstone was more intact, and another of the grave when it was surrounded by iron railings. The railings disappeared during the war, but the background of the shot was still surprisingly constant. The fishermen’s cottages, the line of the landscape, it was all still so beautifully familiar, and I was reminded again of that unknown edge of Scarborough, the way that it doesn’t quite know where it begins let alone where it ends.

Anne Brontë's grave with intact headstone

Anne Bronte's grave with railings

As I spoke to this gentleman, he told me about how he comes to the grave regularly and talks to visitors. He wasn’t a member of the Brontë Society, though he’d written to them for information. He simply kept an eye on her, making sure that the headstone wasn’t damaged and that people didn’t take souvenirs from the headstone.

Another group came, stood, talked. He told them, all of us, about how every now and then somebody would speak of moving Anne’s grave to Haworth. Someone said how she was happy here. Somebody else nodded and said that you shouldn’t go against their wishes.

They moved on, as did I.

I walked down to the front, past the thickness of the fret as it rolled in off the sea in great, cloudy waves, and then I climbed the hill back to the bus stop and I had a slight breakdown over Twitter about it all. About how people cared about Anne. About how this man went there so often just to sit and have his lunch and keep an eye on her grave.

About the strange beauty that can be found in death, about the love.

 

Creativity doesn’t have to be just daffodils and the Lake District

The more I get involved in the A14 Stories project, the more I start to recognise a suspicion I’ve held for a long time. We work, so hard, as individuals to recognise ourselves and to gain liberty and self-worth and yet, we work equally hard to deny that level of personal validation when it comes to creative work. It struck me particularly today when, as part of an interview with a journalist from Radio Four, we stopped some strangers and told them about this project and my position as the A14 Writer In Residence.

The A14 is a road which has a powerful emotional response. What’s massively interesting is the amount of people who, when told about the project, have an intensely emotional and vital response but then self-edit that response as being inappropriate for writing about. “It’s not suitable for poetry”, for example, or “Yes, but I can’t write about it.” The title of this post, in fact, comes from such a conversation.

So, for the record:

Creativity does not require permission.

Creativity is not the sole refuge of the powerful nor the privileged.

Creativity is able to found anywhere; and that found creativity is <i>legitimate</i>.

Creativity is not about things you cannot, or should not do; it is about what you can do.

Creativity is the act of saying yes.

(And now, having said that, because this is the internet here is a picture of a cat. His name is Stephen).

stephen.jpg

 

 

The Birds

The Birds

The darkness comes before I realise it,
swinging down in a great curtain of velvet
which makes my phone flare and burn my eyes
and so I turn it off and walk instead to the window
and look at the blue, black bruise beyond.
This is night here, dramatic and swift,
marked not by time
but by the furious discussion of a thousand birds
who hang on the edge of the nearby wood,
occasionally startling themselves into the sky
to mark their presence with fist and might,
and though I should switch the light on
I stand instead in darkness.
I am not what this night needs,
I am too leaden and soft ,
even though I have spent my day walking
(and when my phone yells at me, BRISKLY WALKING)
I have nothing left inside of me
that can even begin to rise to the heights of this,
this hammer-head of power.

 

(This is one of the poems I’m working on as part of my A14 Writer In Residence position. I thought it was about time I shared another piece…)

Taking A Line for A Walk

There’s a lovely moment, one of several, in David Almond’s My Name is Mina where the characters reference a quote from Paul Klee: “A drawing is simply taking a line for a walk.” This, as with much of My Name is Mina, has stuck with me. Not just for the beauty of the prose but rather the way David Almond re-situates the quote as a marker of Mina’s personal emancipation. If Almond does anything well (and he does a lot well), he argues for the equality of creativity. Creativity is not a privileged, nor restrictive, act. It can, does and will exist wherever it is allowed, sought or seen to be.

So what does this have to do with the idea of literary space and place? Quite a lot actually, and it centres on the issue of the line. 

I first became aware of line in a picture book sense, but I first became aware of it in a topographical context thanks to The Transformation of Rural England by Tom Williamson. I imagine Williamson would be startled by the connection, but to myself, somebody who’s couched in the humanities, it was a startlingly potent one to make. Williamson writes of the enclosures of land through fencing and hedgerow, and how these enclosures began to characterise a farming revolution. As he writes, quoting Joan Thirsk from here:

 “English agricultural development is best understood as a ‘continuum, to be divided between periods of more or less rapid change'”

Oh Joan Thirsk, you dog you. I know that’s not a scholarly comment by any means, but oh, that quote blew my mind. We’re so used to looking at the landscape from a position of relative spatial and static equality, that sometimes we forget the fact that change happens. Of course we know that change happens. We see it in pictures and in front of our eyes, but change isn’t quick and our feet are pretty much always on the ground. The world is pretty much what it is right there in front of us.

But if you shift perspective, if you unfix yourself from that position and look above, and beyond and behind where you are, you start to realise that change is a constant. We’re moving, all of us, all the time, trying to keep up with a world that is so very far beyond us. And that re-orientation of sight hinted at in Thirsk’s comment, that urge to look at landscape as a continuum had – has – such resonance for me.

What is landscape if not a collection of lines? The horizon, that flat line we learn to draw in school without quite understanding it. Sight lines. The narrowing of a road in the distance.  A world where o- isn’t dash oh dash, but rather a man on a bicycle.

And what are lines if not text? If you boil down the idea of a text to the nth degree, you get lines. Symbols. A line that curves up, a line that curves down and a line that meets in the middle. A thousand permutations.

Think of a road, with its endless em-dashes, these great silent expressions of longing that roll across the world, all of these em dashes seeking their partner. Seeking their full stops.

Landscape is language, and language is landscape. The two of them have this symbiosis, that I think David Almond recognises. Stories exist anywhere, they exist at the end of the road. Turn left instead of right. Get lost. Get found.  See where it ends. Write the story with your body. Write it with your self.

Find the lines in your landscape and follow them.

 

 

The Man on the Marble Bench

This is one of the pieces I’m working on as part of my time as the A14 Writer In Residence. One of the things I’m doing is visiting places located in and around the A14, and this came from a visit to the Cambridge American Cemetary and Memorial.  I think it’s only through doing this sort of thing that you can learn to understand an area, or at least, start to tap into the spirit of what that landscape is…

The Man on the Marble Bench

“The thing is,” he says, “I’m not famous like them.
Sure, my name’s on a wall
but that’s all you know about me,
don’t pretend you know more.
They made my name fit, I mean
they measured it; us.
They made us fit here,
leave space for more
I guess.”
He speaks in fits and starts,
as though he’s shy,
but it’s a sort of desperate shyness,
the sort of shyness
that isn’t really about shyness at all.
He doesn’t look at me,
doesn’t see me,
just continues talking,
like he might be stopped
by the raise of my hand
or the darkness overhead.
“I like it here,” he says,
and he looks out to the fields,
to the road beyond.
“It’s kind of defiant.
It’s serenity
where you don’t expect it.
Like a cake,
I guess,
iced so perfect
made so pretty,
but the kitchen around it,
all of it’s just covered with mess,
like you just baked
like you just went off and did it,
just full of love and hope and sugar
and you forgot to think about,
you know,
pans.”
His face blushes,
a poppy catching the last of the light
at the end of the day.
“I cook,” he says, “But I don’t do the dishes.
Never could.
It’s like going backwards
when you were all for heading on.”

Two quick updates

I’m currently working as the A14 Writer In Residence with the University of Cambridge, down at Madingley Hall which is the home of the Institute For Continuing Education. I’ll be there for the next five weeks, for three days a week, and will be sharing stories and tales through the Facebook group. Please do come and join us 🙂 (Especially if you fancy writing a song about the A14, I’m very taken with the idea of a modern troubador sort of thing…)

I’m also going to be contributing at least two articles a month to Book Riot! Here’s my contributor page, and so far I’ve spoken about the Chalet School and life as a researcher of children’s literature.

Writing from Landscape : Place-myths, Writer’s Block and Spatial Dominance

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of dominance when it comes to writing. We talk very easily about work being inspired by a certain area or place or thing, but we very rarely talk about the work that is over-written by that area, place or thing. If creative work is a process of refinement, editing and deletion then what happens to the work that does not survive that process? That perhaps does not even get from head to page to begin with?

For many people this will be recognisable as the idea of ‘writer’s block’, the idea that you cannot write what you want to, need to, or should be writing, but I think that’s a bit too broad a term for what I’m trying to understand in this post. I turn instead to a writer called John Urry and his idea of the ‘place-myth’. In considering the Lake District, he writes:

“It was that literature produced by visitors which served to develop a place-myth around the area which we now identify as the ‘Lake District’. Such a myth could not have developed without visitors and without the literature that some of those visitors produced and others read”

Urry, John (1995) Consuming places 

There’s a lot in that and it’s a lot that’s worth unpacking. Let’s start with the idea of literature produced by people that makes other people come. It’s a cycle of production and one, in a way, that allows very little external influence. Mr Smith writes a book about The Lake District, Miss Jones visits, writes a book about the Lake District, and so on, and so on. What’s vital to recognise is that these steps are all inter-connected. Literature does not exist in a vacuum, and neither does the idea of a place.

I live in York at the moment and York is a site with a ferocious place-myth, written both by the thousands of people that throng its streets on a daily basis but also all of those people that have come before. Ghost tours talk of Roman soldiers, Vikings pantomime fights on the street, and blue plaques talk of visits made by literary sisters. This is a city in dialogue at once with its identity as a contemporary site but also all of the forms of the city that have come before – and will come in the future.

From a literary perspective, that includes such work as Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, Raven’s Gate by Anthony Horowitz and also lesser known authors such as Harriet Parr . The Shambles now asserts a claim towards Harry Potter whilst an almost forgotten sign for Platform 9 3/4 lives in the National Railway Museum. This is a city of web, of lives lived, and to set a story here is a complex business. Do you disregard this story for your own or do you connect with it? Does the place write your story or do you write your story through place?

What happens when a place-myth is too dominant? Or not dominant enough?

Let’s step away briefly and go to the North Sea; to a beach that I won’t tell you about but one that made me inch carefully towards writing, with tight and precise letters that ached slowly towards something. I’m not sure that that something is good yet, but what I do know is that it involved reacting to the place-myth of the space and trying to find a way to work with it. To not let it dominate, but to equally, not lose it.

To find a form of balance, I suppose.

How do you stand against such

moments which make you feel like nothing?

In the scheme of things

you are only an inhalation

a moment

already gone and forgotten.

Yet even though you are gone

you were here

you were immense –

and perhaps that is enough,

perhaps that is why you stand.