Monday, November 27, 2006

Ian McEwan, Atonement and the claims of Plagiarism


Ian McEwan was once one of my 'must-read' authors. Then I grew up, and somehow he didn't. I wrote on this site about his Saturday, caught in some adolescent warp of unlikely sex and violence. Writers should resolve their personal issues, edit them out of their books before publication so as to spare the public. Saturday was an unresolved potage of adolescent fears - and adolescent showing-off - that has somehow left McEwan stranded as a right-wing sourpuss.
So I had a touch of Schadenfreude today when I learned a Sunday paper has accused him of plagiarism for his Atonement. Like that buzz of rightness when Mel Gibson recently showed his true colours.
I've only read McEwan's Guardian piece today, in which he refutes his claims.
And sadly for my own sense of smugness, I'm back on his side. He clearly researches massively - and the novel he is deemed to have plagiarized was the one source in which he found what he needed. Which he claims to have duly acknowledged. Fair enough.
It shows the power of fiction that this early novel was his primary insight into what really happened in wartime nursing.
I'm doing a lot of research now into the first world war, including the role of the tunnellers. It's clear that Sebastian Faulk's drew much of Birdsong from Alexander Barrie's War Underground. Is this plagiarism? No - it's taking the trouble to root historical fiction in contemporary accounts.
I've given up on reading Ian McEwan - just as I haven't even seen Chicken Run because of Mel Gibson doing the voice-over. I don't give my leisure time to psychologically flawed right-wing establishment figures. But let the man go back to his archives. The more his books draw on the work of others rather than on his imagination, the better they are likely to be.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Long Meg and her Daughters



I posted on a visit to Long Meg and her Daughters in July. She just popped up again. Research for something else led me to a Megalithic Poems Blog ... a lovely site ... And there I also found Wordsworth's poem on Long Meg, entirely new to me.
So here's a couple of pictures from my time ... and links to some fine megalithic exploring through poetry.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Voyage round my Father - Derek Jacobi

You've just a few weeks left to catch one of theatre's finest ever performances. Derek Jacobi is wondrous as the old and irascible barrister in John Mortimer's voyage round my Father, now at the Wyndham's Theatre in London. The performance has a Beethoven quality to it, real music in his delivery of the language, beautiful modulations of voice and tone, funny and commanding and touching.
It made me realize how right I was to give up acting for writing. This is an acting masterclass - I could never come near its quality. Yet how wonderful to have such an actor inhabit your words in such a way. Derek Jacobi reckons John Mortimer is 'generous' in his appreciation of the performance, reckoning it is the best he has known - since Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier have played the parts before, it is indeed a fine encomium, but I reckon John Mortimer is also slavering with gratitude. Such a performance of your work, reaching all its depths yet polished to a shine, must justify a writing life.
The death scene took me back, for the first time, to my own father's death. One of those gentle epiphanies a true evening in the theatre can reach.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Is this our man? - Haldane footage

The piece of video accessible from the page linked from here is of my subject's brother Richard, Lord Haldane. It purports to be from 1913. But is it, perhaps, from february 11th 1912? In February Lord Haldane as Secretary for War went to Berlin to meet with the Kaiser, on a peace mission from the cabinet. To disguise the nature of that mission and make it seem like an inquiry into higher education, John Scott Haldane (my subject) went with him as private secretary. The disguise did not work. The two brothers were treated 'like royalties' on their departure, and filmed with 'cinematographic instruments'.
I've not been able to locate such film - the Imperial War Museum has no record of it or of J.S.Haldane at all. However this snatch of ancient film looks like that occasion to me. In that case is the man behind the top-hatted Lord Haldane, the man with the flat cap and the very distinctive JSH moustache, our man J.S.Haldane?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Dreams of theatre


My most persistent dreams, again and again, see me in a theatre. For years I was running round the outsides, or through the corridors. Sometimes I had a seat but curiously askance so I could see nothing. Just occasionally I enjoyed a show. One of the more surprising feats of dreams are these times of creating, staging, and choreographing all-singing-and-dancing musical segments.
I've wondered whether these theatrical venues stand for something else ... but no, I reckon they stand for theatre. It's long been an obsession. My professional acting career went on hold when I got to an audition for a touring Macbeth, remembered my new Shakespeare piece well (an odd selection from Titus Andronicus) but forgot every word of my old Pinter standby. At least novel-writing was in my control. No auditions. I could decide whether I finished a work or not. The next day I settled down to work on my first novel On Bended Knees. I also, by the way, found acting and writing made uncomfortable bedfellows. Directing and writing were fine, both took a wide view, but as an actor you isolated yourself to live inside one alternative being.
Yet I would swap so much success to see my plays put on. I look forward a lot to being flown in to Wake Forest University in North Carolina next February, for a staging of my play Feeding the Roses. But boy, my dream the other night was beyond all else. It was the grandest big-city first-night for the same play. I met the cast, the crew, saw the audience. Another new play was staged as a warm-up but I was too excited to take it in. I've never been so thrilled.
Then, of course, I woke up. But it can only be a good omen, surely. Here I am in London, a capital of theatre. Time to get the show on the road.

the picture

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Edinburgh Review


I've just posted an article on my website taken from the current Edinburgh Review. It is a new piece drawn from interviews with writers I met in Zimbabwe earlier this year.
The Edinburgh Review is going great guns under the editorship of Brian McCabe. It's being well backed by Arts funders, and producing innovative issues. The previous one looked at writings from South America, the current focus is Africa, while the forthcoming one (due in January) looks at India.
Since I have a bracing new short story, 'India, by design', coming out in that issue, why not go for a double whammy, subscribe from now, and get something by me in both the current and the next? Go on, keep an astonishingly venerable institution (it was founded in 1802) yet madly contemporary arts publication thriving, and buy some literary folk Christmas gift subscriptions to boot.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Search Inside - the Amazon feature

Amazon has been a useful research tool for some time. Only today, though, have I made us of its 'search inside' feature. It's terrific - put in your phrase and the search engine delivers all the references from books scanned in to the system.
As a writer I'm not convinced it boosts sales - the pages that come up onscreen (which aren't printable) generally give me just the informtaion I am looking for, and should I want more I'll head to the library. As a researcher I can only admire it. In writing about J.S.Haldane it also places me in a much wider field than I hitherto thought existed. He holds a place in many books. Happily I'm not learning that much as I scan them, and I am mentally correcting some pieces that I find, but good new material and info does appear.
Since Amazon does major in books, I guess it's fair to note this free gift of a research tool to writers. I suppose in years to come we'll just plug in to the Library of Congress of Bodleian site, press in our research terms, head out for a walk, and come home to find our years of research collected, sifted and sorted. That odd rare book that has never been scanned in will possibly become the most treasured volume on earth.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Pencils and libraries

Yesterday saw my return to the British Library after some months away. I'm fond of the curious range of staff there - every ethnicity, nationality, and gender works away, all most helpfully, some with expertise and others with naive enthusiasm.
I discovered excellent new sources for my J.S.Haldane bio, getting to the point of lateral thinking, the books written by characters linked to Haldane's associates. Then I wielded my pencil. I'm not sure why I've stuck to the pencil rather than tapping notes into my laptop. It saves the cut-and-paste response to notes, lets them be incorporated into the story in a more organic way-yet I know in years to come I'll be like everyone else, transferring stuff from book to laptop. Or maybe the library won't be needed at all, its books digitized and searchable, in the same way I can now search all editions of The Times from my home computer.
For now I'm fond of my pencilled notebooks, each its own personal archive. The fact that most of this morning meant transcribing them into this computer-well, I'd have been doing the same were I still working from a typewriter.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Mushroom seasons

'Tis the mushroom season. I saw some grand ones in our village in France ... and only on leaving did I learn that I should have picked them and taken them to Pierre for identification. Then walking our old haunt of the bird reserve in Sandy brought us back in touch with some old favourites, including magnificent puffballs. On Hampstead Heath yesterday a small group of people hugging the earth had to be mushroomers - and indeed the final mushroom foray of the season was in play.
This image, of amanita, comes from my August hike down from the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado. These are the classic mushrooms of fairytales - perhaps not surprising, since they are both highly dangerous and hallucinatory. Like French and the night sky, fungi are something I hope to learn more of one day.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

John McCrae


I walked into Waterstone's on London's Gower Street today, jumping in early for their half-price secondhand book sale - and the shop was silent, everyone standing still. I joined in, marking Armistice Day, the eleventh hour of the eleventh month, honouring the dead and wounded of all wars, but still especially world war one.
Marking that day, here is a photograph I took this summer of the clearing station where John McCrae where John McCrae wrote his poem 'In Flanders Fields'. First published in Punch in December 1915, the poem wrought poppies into the British national symbol of mourning - do other Commonwealth countries share the poppy?:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place


McCrae wrote the poem in the clearing station where many of those wounded in the first gas attacks, very may of those fellow Canadians,were brought for treatment - my own new biographical subject J.S.Haldane the medical scientist first to rush to their examination. The place has been renovated, as Essex Farm Bunker Clearing Station. McCrae witnessed 'the very picture of debacle'. We have a lot to remember.

Friday, November 10, 2006

An evening with the Kurtags


Hiromi Kikuchi took the stage first of all, migrating from one side to the other as she pursued the racks of sheet music stretched across it. Her violin playing was steady and strong, some beautiful and some strange sounds coming out of Kurtag's Hipartita for violing solo. When the piece, a UK premiere, ended with two plucked notes, you somehow guessed this was the end, simply because it was so wilfully unclimactic.
Then an interval and Gyrogy and Marta Kurtag took to the stage. Married since 1947, they were performing G Kurtag's pieces for one or two pianists, Jatekok. Curiously they chose to play a muted upright, sitting with their backs to the audience, one occasionally standing to give the other free rein as soloist. G Kurtag is 80, his wife catching up, and the whole was very dear - the piece is sometimes abrasive but the playing was uniformally soft. Autumn turned the Wigmore Hall into a John Cage sonic landscape performance, the playing of the pianists mingling with prolonged coughs, rattles of water bottle lids, an emergency beeper - and on they played. I was intrigued as much as anything, like attending an octagenarian Noh performance in which little happened in a beautiful way. The piece was different to the recorded version I know, abbreviated and in a variant order, but they finished the main programme with the section I love most of all, perhaps of any piece - Kurtag's transcription of Bach's 'Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeite'. My attending the concert was largely to hear this piece performed, perhaps with a strong touch of seeing one of the living greats among composers (now his dear friend Ligeti has died, Kurtag is clearly the greatest living Hungarian composer - though somewhat dearly he never got real recognition till he was almost sixty). The piece started, I expected to tick it off - 'good, I heard it live' - when it broke me up. My evening ended in silent, grateful weeping, a gift of a musical epiphany. Somehow everyone seemed to leave the Hall gentler in some way, changed a little, carrying something of the kurtags' relationship with them.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

When marmots call


A sound pierced the cloud when I was on Pikes Peak this summer. I thought it was a bird but wondered if it was one of the yellow-bellied marmots that live at those heights. This yellow-bellied marmot site is terrific in giving out that sound - click on the various call names to hear the marmot's vocal range.
On the way up and down the Peak I passed bristlecone pines, old twists of trees that as a species are the oldest living beings on the planet. The Pikes Peak versions are relative striplings at two thousand years old. Here's a great bristlecone website.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Barbara Tuchman's Nonfiction Research Advice


Fun reading at the moment is Barbara Tuchman's classic The Guns of August, about the opening month of World War 1. The trick of research, she said, is knowing when to stop. 'One must stop before one has finished, otherwise one will never stop and finish... Research is endlessly seductive, but writing is hard work.'
Too true on both counts. I have just located a new cache of Haldane material in Oxford, so get the treat of a run out there next week. And my list of books to seek out at the British Library already exceeds the allowable daily quota. But in truth, my J.S.Haldane research is enough to get the first draft written. I'm stuck at the base of a mountain at the moment, and must haul my crew up there this afternoon if I am ever to get beyond the current chapter.
Meanwhile I note Barbara Tuchman 'tried to avoid all spontaneous attribution of the "he must have" style of historical writing: "As he watched the coastline of France disappear, Napoleon must have thought back over the long ..."'
I've not consciously avoided that, but will now start to do so.
Tuchman had a spiked and vigorous style. I smiled at her one-sentence summary of the Czarina: 'Beautiful, hysterical, and morbidly suspicious, she hated everyone but her immediate family and a series of fanatic or lunatic charlatans who offered comfort to her desperate soul.' It is overblown, opinionated, and quite magnificent.

Monday, November 06, 2006

So ... I'm a Londoner


So - I've done it. I have my new bookstores (a new and independent one in West Hampstead, second-hand in Hampstead, plus a range of charity shops); I have my walking routes, ten minutes up to Hampstead Heath then around and around; and today I even recovered some writing rhythm. This morning's work was utter rubbish and only worth erasing. Hopefully this afternoon's will stand up to being read when I settle down again in the morning.
There's a pleasing buzz to coming to know a new street, saying hello to new friends, reading the blue plaques (one-time homes of Keats, R.L.Stevenson and D.H.Lawrence on my first walk), and sensing how you're walking through a landscape patterned by history.
Previously in London I yearned for a stretch of clear sky. The current apartment seems filled with sky, sunlight after the early morning hours and a view for miles south. Kindly the world offered firework displays for our first evening at home. And mist curled around the streets this morning, giving an atmospheric touch to what is otherwise gloriously sunny.
I'm going to like being here.