Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Opening biographies

a>Speaking here in Plymouth the other day, I mentioned the liberties I had taken with the opening chapter of Suffer and Survive. Ultimately they were not so many. The scene is the Tylorstown colliery disaster, and many vivid details were provided in the local newspapers and books about the tragedy, even whole passages of dialogue. My biggest liberty was transposing some of Haldane’s written words to make them his dialogue. Modern biographies (Simon Winchester’s very typical in this regard) throw loads of dramatic incident into the opening chapter, so we see the subject in full flow, before stepping back into the chronology of the life. I noted in my speech that nobody had as yet called me on it. In fact members of the Haldane family have written to say how that chapter was especially relished.
Now Nature has in fact called my bluff, in a review by Andy Meharg. ‘The life of this fearless man is neatly laid out in Martin Goodman's biography Suffer and Survive. Goodman conveys Haldane's scientific dynamism and his love for life,’ he kndly writes. When he gets round to that opening chapter it’s looking good. ‘The first chapter has vividly imagined scenes embroidered onto real events, presumably for dramatic effect, describing how Haldane rushed to a Welsh coal-mining accident.’ It turns out, though, that he s no particular fan of the dramatization mode and enjoys emerging into the rest of the book. ‘After this shaky start, he concludes, ‘the book becomes highly enjoyable. It is a fitting tribute to a pioneer who enabled the human body to survive at the extremes of modern life.’

It’s a fine and interesting review. I’m glad too for the mention in the Daily Telegraph’s Biographies for Christmas, in which the book is called ‘thrilling’.

New Mexican writing

I took time out from more earnest reading on Sunday and zipped through Michael McGarrity's The Big Gamble instead. I'm often up for a good thriller or police procedural, but this one fit another bill, being a New Mexican adventure.
I'm a sucker for New Mexican tales, from the playful pens of Rodolfo Anaya or Tony Hillerman, the native flavour of Frank Waters, the bravado of Zane Grey, the sexual mystic world of D. H. Lawrence (his 'The Woman who Rode Away' still holds out as a favourite).
I picked up my signed McGarrity from Garcia Street Books in Santa Fe. He's a local, and spent years as the county's Deputy Sheriff. That insider's perspective gives a satisfying boost to the book's sense of reality - as a reader, I'm learning something that smacks of authority rather than imagination. It's fun to be taken around landscapes I know, and the plot cracks along till the close. McGarrity takes the Donna Leon stance, spinning us back from the narrative thrust to peer into the domestic arrangements, the hopes and troubles, of his lead characters.
It's good stuff. But it makes me see more clearly how Cormac McCarthy writes great stuff. His No Country for Old Men doesn't stint on the domestic, but with more grit and less sentiment. He never wastes space on description (it's striking how many pages characters stride through without being described at all) yet in a few strokes he conjures up the landscape, because that's what his characters accord with. Characters take on vivid life through their dialogue alone. And he brings in, and plays to the hilt, a genre requirement that McGarrity oddly lacks, a great and sustained chase scene.
Beyond that, Cormac McCarthy brings a moral scope that rivals Milton's. His characters are plucky yet in a fallen world. Humans won't succeed, we've gone past the time for heroes, the best we can do is keep on striving. It's a tough message, but New mexico is the perfect landscape in which to place it.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

A trail of thoughts to India


Conversation over our Thanksgiving dinner turned to Christopher Hitchens. I'm not sure where I stand on the guy - admiring the easy facility of his brain, his ability to down tumblers of neat Scotch while addressing large audiences, and perhaps the audacity of skipping across to the right in moodswings against his former liberal stances, though I weary of the bellicosity of his war rhetoric. The dinner table admired him though.
Particular thankfulness came from Hope Cook. From her years as the Queen of Sikkim Hope often has a refreshing and informed take on events. She was thankful for Hitchens spiking Mother Theresa's legend in his book The Missionary Position. Her own impression came from Mother Theresa's visit to the court of Sikkim. The nun was in hot pursuit of orphans. 'There are no orphans in Sikkim,' Hope explained. Apparently the extended family is such that children are always taken in. They may be left to do menial work, they were not first-class citizens, but they had a home. This was not good enough for the holy missionary. Hope screwed up her face and stamped her feet to portray Theresa's anger at being thwarted. 'I want orphans. I must have orphans. Give me my orphans!'
A human rights' lawyer at the table had her own tale of being sent around Calcutta by Mother Theresa on an orphan hunt. We do have a tendency (addressed in my own In Search of the Divine Mother) to ditch our reason and common sense so as to laud spiritual figures from the East.
On Friday we climbed to the top of Waterstone's on Piccadilly for a private launch of Manuel Schoch's new book Bitten by the Black Snake. Manuel is Swiss, but his German publisher confessed he would never have accepted the book if it had come in as a German language manuscript. Being an American publication gave it the imprimatur of success. Manuel is a Swiss mystic but recognizes that such a being has little commercial play. What he does, he explained, is channel his own wisdom then head out in search of ancient Indian wisdom to back it up. For this book he has found an ancient sutra to work as a suitable commentary on his own philosophical path. It's a canny commercial move.
I was reminded of all this while reading Gustav Janouch's Conversations with Kafka last night. 'Indian religious writings attract and repel me at the same time,' Janouch reports Kafka as saying. 'Like a poison, there is something both seductive and horrible in them. All these Yogis and sorcerers rule over the life of nature not because of their burning love of freedom but because of a concealed and icy hatred of life. The source of Indian religious devotions is a bottomless pessimism.'
It's not true of Buddhism of course. I wonder what job Manuel Schoch's German publisher would have made of editing the rather doleful Kafka. 'Bitten by the Black Snake?' he asked of Schoch. 'What sort of a title is that?' The book came out in Germany as 'The Tao of Happiness.' Under which title, it's proving much more successful.

Picture by Asjborn Lonvig

Monday, November 19, 2007

Oxford event cancelled

The J S Haldane in Oxford event for this Wednesday has just been cancelled ... poor advance take-up apparently. It's odd how times have changed ... In years past I would never have expected to buy in advance, or even to pay, to attend a bookstore appearance, but just turned up blithely on the night.

Sorry if you were coming ... Still, the store has lots of books available so you could merrily spend the evening reading it instead, before watching England v. Croatia (come to think of it, probably not the night to be out there selling books!).

Thursday, November 15, 2007

J. S. Haldane returns


I'm back on the John Scott Haldane trail. Next Wednesday (21st November, 6.30pm) sees me take the train from the West Country to Oxford (a regular route for Haldane himself) to present Haldane's life at Blackwell's (50 Broad Street: Tel: 01865 333623). Haldane spent his working life in the city, working at the University and in his home laboratory. The book store event's a splendid chance for people to remember what a fine and affordable Christmas present Suffer & Survive, my Haldane biography, makes ... particularly for that father in your life.

It's been a lively week on the Haldane trail. On Monday morning I had a guestspot in Plymouth's Life Writing MA segment, speaking in a more general way on my life-writing career. Yesterday saw a crowd of about 45 turn up for an English and Creative Writing research event. My talk here was called 'The Biographer's Journey', about the nature of a writer twining his life with a subject for several years.

And Tuesday saw another aspect of myself flip into public view, when my own MA in Fiction class asked to use an 'open themed' week to look at one of my own novels. We chose the most recent, Slippery When Wet. It's a different game, teaching from your work as opposed to presenting it. I declared open season on the book, since this is a rigorous course, and people immediately dug in.

I suspect the difficulty is not so much teaching from your own work, but giving teachers free rein to comment. Years ago I gave a dear friend, the poet and film maker James Broughton, a proof copy of a book. I'd forgotten he'd spent years as a teacher. In proof form the book appeared open to change and he steamed in, lacerated it. When I gave him the finished copy, unaltered, he wrote to say how much he loved it and that his previous remarks were astray. Teachers just can't help digging in. I've tried to trim that tendency in myself, balancing what I might term 'critical insight' with praise etc, though I'm sure that didactic streak still flares through. When I put my manuscripts out for readers' comment, I take care to avoid teachers. They just can't help themselves. You come away pummelled. There are several teachers or ex-teachers in my MA group. I've learned my lesson. I shan't be teaching from my own books again next year.

In praising that eventual book, James Broughton still couldn't resist offering me a piece of advice. 'You start sentences with 'There is' .. 'there were' ...' he told me. 'You can always find a better way of doing it than that.'

Scanning what's above, I note I've used 'there are' once, but the message did strike home. I became conscious of the habit and sought to check it, and to improve. Balancing praise with pointing out one area in which I could find improvement, now that was grand teaching for which I stay very grateful.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Catching the last post on Plymouth Hoe

I borrowed a fine house in an exclusive district of Santa Monica some years ago, all set for a writing retreat. It would have been an oasis of calm, but for the leafblowers.
As a kid I loved jumping in November leaves. As I grew up I loved sweeping them up. Mechanical leafblowers are one of the horrors of modern living. You no longer fill yourself with those spores, that early thrill of leaf mould. Instead diesel fumes choke the air, and men who might otherwise be gardeners wear headphones to smother the mechanical din.
A leafblower was working the gardens of Plymouth Hoe in front of my window this morning. I blocked it out, and managed to write on. Then with the brief staccato of a snare drum a new sound was invading.
I didn’t mind this one though. Plymouth Hoe turns with the seasons. Last Sunday the promenade was filled with workers erecting a funfair. It kicked into life on Monday evening, lights spinning music blaring girls screaming, and then sank into silence at 10pm. By the morning all signs of it were gone. This was part of Bonfire Night … our British version of Independence Day and a fiesta, celebrating the fact that our Parliament buildings were not torched all those centuries ago. The skies above Plymouth were ablaze with fireworks shooting out of the military citadel compound, twenty glorious minutes of explosive dazzle from 8pm. Thousands crammed Hoe gardens, which I am more used to sharing with dogwalkers and a few skateboarders. Then they strolled back down the hill to their homes and to bed.
The snare drum marked the beginning of a rehearsal for next Sunday. November 11th, the 11th hoursof the 11th day of the 11th month, will see troops stationed around the war memorial as they were today. This marks the signing of the armistice in the First World War. These marines and sailors are remembering those who died in service. The memorial here in Plymouth is tended by the war graves commission, because of course many of those who died at sea know no other grave. An old lady was arranging flowers beneath the inscribed name of a dead sailor as the rehearsal took place around her.
As a trumpet blew out the last post, I ended a section of my new novel. I wrote on, and paused a while later to stand in the old fashioned way for the national anthem, my window now open to receive the fullness of sound. As I later laid my pen down for the day, the band struck up a bouncy medley and marched themselves back to their citadel.
I don’t care for leafblowers, but it is pleasing when writing fits into the seasons of other people’s lives.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The balm of broad horizons on the South Coast Way



Plymouth University’s computer system crashed on Friday afternoon, the sun was shining, so what’s a guy to do? Our first walk of the South Coast Way took us from the Martello Tower around the east side of Plymouth Harbour. One intriguing aspect of journeying is to view your own home from a different perspective. Now we could look across the water to Plymouth Hoe, with Seaton’s lighthouse and our home.
Just a glimpse of the sea is hugely balancing for me. Walking beside it is the world’s best therapy. A poet in Derby the other day advised me to go to Bantham, a small coastal spot (pictured here as a rockscape and a boathouse), for a place of isolated charm. The recommendation worked, a beautiful inlet and sandy beach, plus a few becalmed surfers.
The trio of walks was completed the next day with a drive from Devon into Cornwall and a stroll of a cliff edge path beyond Polperro (pictured). Bruce Chatwin claimed he gave up work at Sotheby’s and set off for Africa because a doctor prescribed him wide horizons. London used to disturb me – I would run to the Thames and look down it toward the North Sea as the most open aspect I could find but the view never mended me enough. The coast gives me that aspect. It lifts me from the page for a while and sets me back on Earth.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Graham Mort's 'Visibility'

It's cheery to see such an exceptional Guardian review for Graham Mort's new book of poetry, the new and selected poems Visibility. I used a bundle of eminent poems in a seminar the other week. It was Graham's poem 'Mole Totem' which meant most to the students. Six three-line stanzas, each a sentence, follow the journey of moles hung up in death ... Backs convulse against wind,/rain washes strychnine/through their leaky spines. ... then back into the subterranean world through which they once swam ... One by one they fall, softened/by April rain, quicken, plunge/blindly back into waves of soil.
I am glad to have had the years of Graham's poet's eye trained on my novel Ectopia (as supervisor on my PhD at Lancaster). Not just the poet's eye for rhythm and language and detail, but an unflinching eye, peering thorugh the surface of the work in search of what was yet to be revealed.