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.

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