Monday, October 30, 2006

Chasing history in Bailleul


I do love the byways that biographical research leads you to. Bailleul's more than that of course, it's 'the heart of Flanders' and surprisingly for such an overwhelmingly flat area it's mounted on a hillside.
It's a sturdy town, rebuilt after its almost total destruction in 1918, its 'belfroi' dominating one side of a large square of fine shops, a 'lived-in' kind of place. I veered off the highway north of Lille to take it in, driven by references to it by my biographical subject J.S.Haldane. He came here in World War One, examining the victims of gas attacks. The tourist office rallied round, and from a range of documents and newspaper cuttings we identified where that work would have taken place. So suddenly Bailleul became mine for a while, I had a reason to march out along the road to Ypres, through the gated archway and into the grand grounds of the former asylum. Then on to the British cemetery, walking the rows of the dead, appreciating the miniature biographies that are there just in the names and regiments and ages, the dates of death corresponding to different battles, the loving phrases of the young men's families. Even the graves marking the German dead, the unknown soldiers, come with their own story: the very fact of being young, dead and unknown in France, buried by your enemy. I took the register out of its 'safe' in a wall and checked for my namesake, standing by the grave of the 19 year old airman, a Goodman from London, for a while. You're walking in footsteps when you follow such traces through a town, treading the past back into living memory in some way.

Friday, October 27, 2006

From Nuits St Georges to the Lewarde mine


As a kid my task was to go down the cellar - a grand one complete with secret passages - and choose the wine for the evening meal. 'Nuits St Georges should go well with the steak' I would declare. My father had a grand cellar, earned from his electroplating business. He specialized in plating pit props for the UK mining industry, a technique he devised which meant the pit props could be reused rather than disposed of.
So my first night out on my route back to England from the Pyrenees was in the small town of Nuits St Georges - picture perfect in a neat trim way. From Burgundy I raced north to the mining museum at Lewarde - a little extra international research for my J.S.Haldane bio. My guidebook suggested it took you more into the period of Germinal than is in fact so: the mine only started operating in 1930, and is a recreation. Visitors wear helmets and enter a lift to rattle down the shaft but in fact the journey is only down one floor. I 'went down' a similar one in Wales. Much the best mining museum I know of is 'The Big Pit' in Wales, though in a more modest way, when you truly do go down a mine and capture some sense of how it once was.
But I did see those pit props today - I plated one or two myself when working a summer in my father's factory. So an oddly memorable excursion in one of the less picturesque parts of France.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Planting for Posterity


This biography of J.S.Haldane I’m writing keeps turning up pleasant incidental facts. Planning their new home Cherwell in Oxford (now the home of Wolfson College) it was built around three splendid walnut trees. In 1919 they gave a spectacular crop. Three years later they were all gone. It seems as soon as a walnut tree’s roots reach the aquifer, the tree dies. ‘If you want to plant for posterity,’ the Haldanes were advised, ‘don’t choose walnuts.’
Yet these walnuts were 250 years old. Won’t that do for posterity?
Here in the French Pyrenees, we keep doing our bit, chucking the fruits of different trees around the countryside, planting into what is known as the ‘garrigue’, the Mediterranean vegetation of low-lying shrubs and such fragrant plants as sage, thyme and lavender. This year’s main distribution has been from the strawberry tree, beautiful small round bright red fruits. We tasted them for the first time this year. They’re sweet. But composed largely of seeds. Their true delight comes with the visit of a spectacular butterfly, the two-tailed pasha.
I’ve been breaking up the writing with some intense gardening of a communal patch neighbouring our house, digging up the roots and tubers of a rapacious vine. Central to my subsequent landscape design was a neat shrub from the ‘garrigue’, beautifully established. Yesterday a neighbour called down from the property above. He had done me a favour and cut down that specimen. It didn’t belong in a garden. Hey ho. Gardens have to adapt to local sensibilities, it seems. No use planting for posterity if nobody wants it.
I’m winding up this stay now. The roses are pruned back, bulbs planted for the spring, when I’ll deal with the weeds that have invaded. It’s been a strenuous and productive writing time. Today I scaled back the pace a little, reading through some of my research notes for the biography. I’ve tended to read up each section before launching myself into its writing, rather than try and retain the whole book in detail. As I sat in the mountain sunshine, a lizard wandered across the pages on the wall in front of me.
I know it’s a good idea to leave here and return to a new base in London. I tell the neighbourhood dog that as we set out on walks together. I could just do with this spell of wondrous weather to pause a little, drape some clouds over the mountains, and create a scowling sky, so I’m less reluctant to leave.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Biography - from Mother Meera to J.S.Haldane




Ten years ago I was sitting here in France working on my previous biography. That was of the young Indian holywoman Mother Meera (the pictures here: the first is of the front door where she was born. The others are from her new home town in India, Madanapalle: statues in her garden; the first headquarters of the Maharishi of TM renown, also in the town; and the first place she and Mr Reddy stayed when there). Research was a happy period. Other than a few books published through her organization, there were no written materials to work through, but she was young. The main man behind propelling her to international stature, her ‘Uncle’ Reddy, had died. That was a shame, he would have been eloquent, informed and passionate, but his tale would also have come with its own agenda. The other significant people on her life were still around. With her blessing, I went to southern India in search of her story.
Family members had been well briefed. Certain aspects of Mother Meera’s life were not to be mentioned. That’s easy to request of someone, but harder to achieve. Some episodes, such as the death of a sister, were still too resonant not to sound in the family tales. And names of non-family members kept arising. I chased the references across southern India till I had met with these people. They were under no obligation to keep things quiet. They had agendas too. I had to balance these things out.
One piece of paper did seem significant. The young Mother Meera was introduced into the Aurobindo ashram who compiled an official report on her. I never did find that report, though my quest led me to meetings with all the various elders involved. I loved many of the meetings I had, in truly evocative locations. Some were informative, some bracing, all intelligent. The biography had added to it something of a pilgrimage tale, something of a travel book.
I gathered many details which did not square with the official versions. I was informed that there is a divine truth which I could never approach, and a more plodding truth which is so mundane as to be wrong. I shan’t run through the tribulations that followed, though they have their own unique place of drama in the history of biography.
I worked hard to make the book objective. I wanted to bring information back for westerners who are naturally naïve when approaching gurus from other cultures. I was encouraging rather than discouraging them in such a move, since western culture has discouragement of such spiritual quests as its default mode. I took that western cultural stance into the equation when aiming for that objectivity. That meant not offering too much ammunition to those looking to find a negative angle on mystics from the East. I sat in these mountains and wrote one furious draft of 66,000 words in two weeks, just to burn it out of my system, then started again to produce the balanced version.
Clearly, however, any biography is also subjective. The subject’s life is entwined with the biographer’s own for a period of years. In looking for a new subject I sought someone whose life story was worth some years of my own, someone from who I could learn. Someone too, since I am also a novelist, whose life came with a strong, sustained narrative structure. The living people with memories of J.S.Haldane are his grandchildren. I have been on some geographical trips, but most of the journeys have been through papers discovered in libraries and archives. I make no appearance as a character in this book, but am the touchstone of the story, for the parts that tell are those that excite once I have struggled to understand them. It is a story from the two previous centuries that resonates profoundly with this one. Haldane is grand model for a life.
The other week a friend who had just read my recent novel Slippery When Wet wondered whether I had chosen J.S.Haldane as a typical character from one of my books, someone British who rubbed against all notions of Britishness. That was never conscious, but I can see how it might be true … the Mother Meera book had me challenging my own Britishness.
A decade older, a decade’s more distance, my book on Mother Meera would surely be different were I to write it now. I grew in its writing, and the years of the book have a significant place in my own biography. However I am happy for it to be wrapped in its time and place. People have since died, access to others has been closed. Mother Meera is the type of figure around whom religions are formed. My book sneaked its research in under the wire, travelling around India, discovering my own ‘true’ story before the facts could be subsumed by myth.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Things that fall from the sky


A brass Tibetan bowl stands on a small table in the house. Inside it, unable to mount its sides, was a scorpion.
Odd enough. I slid it out onto a step outside (a neighbouring villager termed this Pyrenean place ‘the beautiful village of the river and stairs) and watched it clim down the step then work its way into a hole in a wall.
All odd enough. Maybe it was having a go at crossing the ceiling and fell off. The walls here are thick, composed of large blocks of granite and limestone and random mortar. Bats zoom in and out of them.
Then today, like one of the skinks who also inhabit these walls, I was sitting outdoors at lunchtime to warm up in the sunshine. My newspaper (a week old Tribune) lay on the wall in front of me. Then splat. A worm landed on it.
Tell me, how come?
I slid it into the strip of earth that holds the rose tree, which valiantly has returned from a waterless summer to offer red roses round the windows.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

In and out of a Cornish tin mine


I holidayed in Cornwall as a kid, the crumbled stone towers of disused tin mines always appealing. I’ve just been entering those mines imaginatively, following J.S.Haldane in the early years of last century.
He was investigating the causes of anaemia and lung disease among the miners. It’s been a tough chapter to write, sitting reading the official reports again and again to imagine my way into the story. The capter was all wrapped up, I was ready to move on, and found myself stuck.
One trick I’ve learned over the years is that when writing is blocked the problem isn’t in what you have yet to write, but in what you have just written. The book’s gone astray, the next element doesn’t flow from it.
So I’ve been back and breathed more into the chapter. I was tired when I was writing earlier, the writing tired as a consequence. Now that more lively voice is returning. I’ve got rid of what I call ‘reportage’ and am dramatizing the action once again. All those things I seek to correct when working on other people’s manuscripts, I’m now correcting in my own.
Sitting in the rainswept Pyrenees I’ve enjoyed coming to know Dolcoath (near Penzance) and the other tin mines of the county, with a pleasant excursion to Sennen Cove. How is a tin mine different to a coalmine? It’s one of a myriad of questions worth exploring that I have never bothered with till now. Writing a biography is a constant education. I could now win a few pub quizzes if they featured 19th century German scientists. Give me a week or so, and I’ll score a few follow-up points on the history of diving.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Biography - so what's 'professional' mean?

A while back I discussed with the biographer Carole Angier what the notion of ‘professional’ means to a biographer. She was quite adamant that it meant going to the ends of the earth to ensure every major source had been thoroughly searched.

I see the logic and the passion of that stance, though am keeping to the more journalistic view of ‘professional’ just now, being one of keeping deadlines. I have trawled the earth for my stock of original J.S.Haldane source materials, to some real success. However, important documents did once exist and have gone missing from all records. Where is Haldane’s own typewritten memoir? Where are the diaries of his daughter Naomi Mitchison, his son JBS Haldane? Where is his correspondence with his colleague C.G.Douglas? I’ve found references to them all, but the documents themselves elude me. Did any of it go up in an Indian bonfire, when JBS Haldane’s widow was ridding herself of her ant-eaten dowry of irreplaceable Haldania?

‘There’s always the paperback,’ my editor at Simon & Schuster, Andrew Gordon, consoles me. It seems the concept of a deadline is quite real to him too.

So I’m steaming away towards a full manuscript by the end of the month. Once that’s achieved any obvious gaps will be apparent, which I’ll plug with more research. 2,000 words a day seems attainable at the moment, with weekends off. V.S.Pritchett used to walk up the stairs to his small writing room seven days a week, but I know that is not sustainable for me. I’m already fighting off the migraines by Friday afternoons, and need my weekends to recharge.

I’m also writing on ‘retreat’ in France. October is proving beautiful here. What a waste not to step outdoors at least some of the time, watch the vines changing colour, and sip their fruits.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Hold on - a biography's coming through

I woke today and found myself singing, a quick burst of ‘I’m Getting Married in the Morning.’ Then I realized why. It was a Monday and time to get back to the job of the J.S.Haldane biography. On Friday we concluded a major self-experiment – the ‘we’ being he and I together, bringing an old laboratory adventure to life. Through the weekend we’ve been waiting for the next episode, his marriage. So I was singing my way into the job.
I woke the other night from an extended dream in which Haldane was appearing on a black and white TV, old yet still boyish, staring out from the screen and into my eyes for a long period.
Who knows what the psychic merging is when you tie your own life in with someone else’s so exclusively? I am coming to realize that Haldane lived his life, just as I generally tell my own stories, yet in this biography we have a compromise. Through my researches over the past two years one particular story has emerged, clinging on through scraps of correspondence, as bylines in other people’s letters, as snapshots and occasional diary entries, as official records and family anecdote. Find these, assemble them, scurry away in research to fill any glaring gaps, and ‘A Life’ takes form. This story has been through its own process of selecting and editing itself over the last 150 years. These are the remnants from which the life can be built. It plays through my imagination, has me dreaming and singing, as a Haldane is conjured back to some living form to meet the 21st century. Then I guess he forms new versions of himself in the experience and lives of his readers.