Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tortilla Flat

I met my nephew at a station the other day and dipped into my suitcase for the book I'd just finished. We sit on different poles of the political spectrum (he was jetting off to a forum of right-wing thinktanks) but the wonders of great books reach everybody. He's now in America reading John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat.
Working through Steinbeck's letters some years ago I found him sitting on a hillside in the dark (his electricity had been cut off), with his wife and surrounded by dogs, demanding that his publisher return his latest novel so he could destroy it. He had decided it was not true ... he hadn't let the characters be themselves but instead had steered them toward his own didactic aims. He was poor, but returned the advance and burned the book.
Tortilla Flat is a wry gem, as true to its characters as a book can get. Steinbeck sets up this tale of several paesanos in a house above Monterrey to be a modern court of Camelot. The men are wastrels, happy to sacrifice most anything for a gallon of wine, but friendship is an absolute. The book is brief, the writing taut and often comic, and it's the greatest celebration of community I've read since Charles Mungoshi's Waiting for the Rain. It surprised me to tears at its close, sitting on a train as the levels of Belgium streaked past outside.

Whose rules?

We were back down from Ryan Mountain, sitting on one of Joshua Tree National Park's lower boulders, snacking from our picnic. One sandwich satisfied James. He considered the other one.
'They say not to feed the animals,' he remembered. 'I suppose that counts for ravens.'
We hadn't seen the raven, but laughed at the joke and followed the cry. It was sitting near the spikes of a Joshua Tree. James walked across the desert to face it from a distance, owed, and left his sandwich on the ground.
The bird was circumspect. It took its time, then swooped to a lower, closer branch to have a look. When it dropped to the sandwich we said goodbye. We'd broken enough rules for the day, and ravens don't like you to watch them eating.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


I had my choice of days out in Belgium yesterday - Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp etc. That it was a Monday helped define my choice (Belgium closes its museums on Mondays) but I felt like a day out in nature in any case. Only vaguely informed about where to find such a thing, I took the train south to Rixensart.
Walloonia, this French-speaking southern half of the country, has wooded hills rather than the flat lands of Flanders. I tramped out for an hour through Rixensart, looking for the edge where the countryside begins. It's a pleasant well-kept semi-urban neighbourhood, birds singing in the gardens, but each time I reached an edge builders were ahead of me and a new property was swallowing up the land. I then found I was meeting the next town, growing out the other way.
I pulled in at a petrol station (such had my country hike become). Yes, the man could guide me to a walk though it wasn't up to much ("il n'est pas un grande chose"). It did me well enough, a solid path through a forest that moved from pine to mixed, birch and beech joining in. A shiny beetle crossed the path, a bee hummed above my feet, and I started to feel mended. At the bottom of a hill three mallards burst from a stream and an amphibian croak filled the sky. I followed the stream, and then a track along a river till my passage was stopped by a fence, with some big industrial plant on the other side. In a water-filled rut in the land was a small natterjack toad (identified since, through the distinctive yellow stripe down its spine). I saw a pair of them on a mudbank later. So this was my amphibian sound. It took me back to seeing tiny treefrogs in the Amazon, the size of earrings, bellowing out noises that rent the jungle canopy.
I found new mushrooms and plants too. And wandering back into town a noticeboard informed me that the community is twinned with Birstall, where I grew up and went to primary school, so it was a cheery coming home in many ways.
A natterjack toad is of course as wonderful as anything to be found in art - and liable to become one of the rarest of beauties in my lifetime. I realized that in my walk in search of countryside I was really trying to walk out of the century, leaving urban growth behind me. Back in Brussels we had spent the Saturday in the Musée des Beaux-Arts. In the corner of one room was the Fall of Icarus by the younger Pieter Brueghel.

I've long loved Brueghels, as with any art that includes a narrative. I went from the label back to the picture, in shock to discover the subject was confined to one small corner. And then I remembered the W.H.Auden poem Musée des Beaux-Arts, and realized I was standing where the poet stood in 1938, sharing his appreciation and surprise.

It was good to have some lines to share with Auden. My poetry doesn't compare, so till now the comparisons have been limited to the lines on my face (many still need to be etched in to match the face of the Master, but I'm inching my way there).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Random House Library and Archive - and a Walter Baxter quest

I put on my biographer’s boots today, and they took me north of London to Rushden. Random House has its library and archive there. I expected some discreet door into an anonymous building but in fact the Random House name is emblazoned on a large warehouse that dominates a roundabout.
My welcome from Jean Rose, the archivist, was jolly. I had a well-lit room to myself, a photocopier and plate of biscuits, and hot tea flowed through the whole visit. The files I was looking for were all to hand.
This particular quest is for information on the novelist Walter Baxter. His first novel Look Down in Mercy is regarded as one of the classic books of the Second World War. His second, The Image and the Search, was his last. He and his publisher A.S.Frere were arrested on the criminal charge of obscene libel and tried three times at the Old Bailey. As juries could not agree on a verdict the pair were found not guilty, but the affair was so bruising it knocked all the heart out of Baxter’s attempts to continue his writing career.
I love picking through files to unearth treasures. Today held plenty. Baxter was published in the UK by Heinemann, whose archives are still 90% intact. I read the correspondence between Walter Baxter and his publisher, … and then letters neither would have wished the other to see. E.M.Forster was an early supporter of the novel, and I’ve been touched before to read how Walter Baxter was prepared to save him from a court appearance even if it meant prison. Now I learn that Forster in fact withdrew his support as the book came to trial, swung by negative reviews and opinions of his friends. Graham Greene, swinging the Catholic Church in to support Baxter, termed Forster a rat.
Here’s a letter from W.S.Maugham; a series from H.E.Bates; another from Georgette Heyer. A.S.Frere’s authors and other publishers seemed to be rallying round. But read further, and you learnt that Frere felt almost everyone had let him down.
I’ve been building up my Walter Baxter file for a couple of years now. I work this way with subjects till the material reaches critical mass and I have the chance to shape something from it. My Walter Baxter story is shimmering into shape. An early outing for it comes in July, when I’m invited to give a paper at Bristol University (where the surviving Penguin Archives are held) at a conference on the Lady Chatterley Trial – Baxter’s trial serving as for early comparison.
Meanwhile I’m learning to think more kindly of Random House. I’ve viewed them as a conglomerate till now (the one time they’ve published me, in New York, my new publisher denied all existence of my book till I guided her to the relevant page in her current publishing catalogue). Now I’m told that ln Britain the group retains a family feel, and numbers not much more than 200 staff. They’ve bought up imprints, but unlike other houses (Penguin sold 60% of its archives to collectors in America) they show real care for their library and archives.
My own writing has involved me in severe legal tangles so I find myself sympathetic to Baxter as he fought the lone writer’s battle for the integrity of his books. I had sympathy for the publisher too though, cast into cells as a criminal on behalf of a book he was publishing because he wanted to support the writer’s career even though he had strong misgivings about its relative quality. I came away with a sense of writing, and writers, being valued even as they were under attack.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Years ago I ran away to sea. I expected ocean liners to be lining up at Portsmouth or Southampton on the south coast of England, in need of ships' pursers. I was hopelessly naive and decades late. The only boat I found was the ferry to the Isle of Wight. I climbed aboard, and then a bus as far south as it would take me. My voyage to sea took me as far as a holiday apartment in Ventnor with views out across the water. I rented the apartment from a retired antiques dealer who was leading a successful life in the house above, writing soft core porn.
I gazed out at the ocean and wrote my latest novel (though I was still very much unpublished). Tennyson ghosts the island, and Turgenev used to swim off the shore at Ventnor so I was in some writerly tradition.
Living alone and staring out at sea rendered me rather loony however. Seaviews and isolation are exceptionally fine, but best played in short bursts if you want a balanced life in the world.

Our trip out off the California coast last week, from the city of Ventura out to Anacapa, was my first to these Channel Islands. As a day trip it was perfect. Anacapa, the most southerly, is just a mile and half long, its name stemming from a native American term for mirage. Ice plants, pink-flowered succulents, now mat the island after their introduction in the 1930s, but we were there too for the blooming of the yellow coreopsis.
The islands are known by some as North America's Galapagos, thanks to the nutrients that bubble up from the seabed to feed a wide range of life. We were there in the nesting season of Western gulls - 4,000 pairs making it the world's largest such nesting colony. I'm used to the gulls of Plymouth sharing the city centre. It was a privilege instead to be sharing these birds' more natural territory for a while, gulls settling down into the same square footage of land they'll know for the thirty-odd years of their lives.
One portion of the island is off-limits to people for ten months of the year, being the nesting site for the endangered brown pelicans. (Those pictured here have strayed close to the lighthouse.) I've watched these skimming the waves, plunging for fish, or standing like day visitors from primeval times on the pier at Santa Barbara. Their breeding here is a success story. Years ago a chemical plant onshore pumped DDT into the oceans. This rendered the shells of the pelicans' eggs so thin they cracked when the pelicans stood on them to begin the hatching process. It took decades before the poisons lessened enough to allow populations to regrow.
A day among the birdlife, sounds of birdcalls and surf and winds and the barking of sealions, is just enough of an island day to wash away some of the insane aspects we've forced into human existence. Our boat motored through the Channel, keeping pace with a grey whale, calling out in wonder at each spume from its blowhole, before we were loaded back onto the mainland and disgorged into our separate cars.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

ZCLA - and a Zen priest is made

Zen’s had a west-coast literary flavour for some years. Kerouac and the Beats flirted with it; Gary Snyder went further and entered a monastery in Japan. (Snyder gave up poetry for his first years there, so he could take his new religion seriously, then was told ‘poetry is hard, Zen is play’ and realized he had understood it the wrong way round.) Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance gave Zen a popular face, which has grown till now the term is branded, Zen denoting some kind of pure aesthetic as a label for soap and wallpaper.
It was a treat to be at the Zen Center of Los Angeles and trace Zen from its western makeover back towards its ancient source. James Soshin Thornton was being ordained as a Zen priest, into a lineage of Buddhist teachers stretching back inside the Japanese Soto Buddhist Order and beyond to the original Shakyamuni Buddha of some 2500 years ago. This picture comes from the close of the ceremony, when priests circle the newly ordained figure, Buddhas bowing to Buddhas.


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Mary Renault's 'The Charioteer'

I’ve long thought writing was vital to bring my life back in balance. Surely it sets me to rights, but it occurs to me now that reading can do a similar job.
I picked up Mary Renault’s The Charioteer in a Plymouth fleastore on Saturday, and it was the reading I had with me at the ballet that night (Birmingham Royal Ballet’s jolly Sylvia) with its two long intervals. By the third act I was hooked. Sunday night saw me tuck back into it, and then the book became bedtime reading. On a delayed train, my term’s teaching behind me, I’m free to read for the pleasure of it rather than to teach or assess. I’ve just finished the novel, and collected it inside me.
The Charioteer was published in 1959, and tells a gay love story between men injured at Dunkirk. Set in England, Mary Renault wrote it from the distance of South Africa. I was speaking with the novelist Francis King recently about the situation faced by gay English novelists in the 1950s, many of whom wrote from abroad. It wasn’t just homosexuality that was taboo; sex was. A printer had caused a scene to be excised from one of his novels in which a man’s tongue entered a woman’s mouth, for the printer was liable to be sued for obscene libel for allowing such a thing from his presses.
So the most passionate kiss in The Charioteer is a straight one (and tongues don’t enter mouths). The one gay kiss is very chaste, and sex happens within the line breaks. It’s a wonderful, deep, true book though, not shy of incident and stoked by the intelligence of raw emotions finding ways to settle.
Reading this novel perhaps met the needs writing meets for me, because it achieves much of what I am striving for in my work of late. Honesty without sensation is part of that; writing that gathers pace through a series of long sentences rather than a sequence of stabbing short ones; work that has the strength to linger in the moment for those deeper revelations surface hides; characters who are mature, discovering ways to meet others’ needs while startled by their own.