Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sea Interludes and Sydney

Last night was my annual PLR outing ... using the money from library borrowings (thanks readers!) for a night-out at the opera. The English National Opera comes up trumps for me more than any other place; stars aren't jetted in to reprise their latest roles, you get true staged drama with a superb company in a relatively intimate setting. Peter Grimes was extraordinarily powerful. I can 'know' a piece on disc but even the orchestral sea interludes make more intense dramatic sense when linked to the stage. I had always thought that Peter Grimes was a poor innocent hounded by the 'Borough', the local populace, but this is real drama so in fact much more layered than that. The locals are justifiably alert for the safety of Grimes' apprentices, and Grimes is a loner who flashes out of control at times, driven by what others think of him. This is no case of good and bad. A scene in which the townsfolk are dancing gleeful at having been proved right, almost dancing on graves, chilled me.
We're off tonight, being flown in to Sydney. I'm to be reading as part of the Tales from the Afterlives event, part of the Luminous festival curated by Brian Eno. My partner James, more significantly, is also the star act next Sunday in mainstage discussion with Brian on the environment, and how culture might adapt to meet climate change.
I'm looking forward to scouting the city, and the Opera House, in my freetime. Since being invited there, I've realized the Opera House is central to a chapter in my ongoing novel. I do like that curious mergance of life and novel when creativity is bubbling the work into shape. So much surprises me by feeding from one into the other.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Visiting Dachau

My current novel took a rest last September. It had reached the point where the action reached the concentration camp at Dachau. I felt it could not continue till I had been there myself. My imagination works a story and builds its characters, but I need my body to experience a place for itself. Placing my body somewhere lets me have its scale, for one thing. I know how many strides it takes from one place to another, the direction of wind and birdsong.

At Dachau, of course, that physical side of things is only one element. They have reconstituted the first row of bunkhouses so you can imagine your way into such confines, multiply the numbers inhabiting the spaces till you've packed in the crowds that were crammed there. You can look across the vast empty square and picture it filled by desperate mass drills and rollcalls.
The visceral experience of being there is different to all that though. I walked past the gate, entered the camp, and found myself sobbing.
It's as though a weeping hangs over the place, seeking an outlet. That won't belong in the book, of course. I sat till I could compose myself then went about my professional business, my novelist's research.
This continued outside of the camp, viewing from outside the grand villas that housed the SS elite (now behind barbed wire, as a rather grand home and training ground for Bavaria's riot police).
I walked a memorial route back into town, past the railway station where inmates were deposited for their final march. And then on to the town's museum, an intriguing and lovely place that considers the communities that belonged to Dachau's agricultural past. The concentration camp doesn't get a mention. It must take effort to live with such a neighbour, to be bordered by such bleak and savage expressions of human nature.
Clusters of Jewish groups visit the camp now, and troops of the young. It's good to see the young. We need to know the worst we can do. It establishes a choice.

Found Art in Dachau

At the turn of the last century Dachau was known for its artists' colony, painters appreciating the beauties of light and landscape with the bonus of a thriving art market in nearby Munich.
The town, medieval lanes twisting up a hillside, has a beautiful display of this colony's art in one of its galleries. This picture comes from near the contemporary gallery at the bottom of the hill - but is in fact the outer spread of a scrapyard.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Assessing creative writing at universities

That hoary question came my way the other day: ‘Why ‘creative’ writing – why not just ‘writing’?’
The existence of creative writing in the Academy infuriates some people. A man challenged me at a public meeting in Plymouth during a networking session: ‘All writing is creative, even a sign to a public toilet!’ When I dared to respond, to suggest differently, he turned tail and sprinted to the far corner of the room, putting as much distance as he could between himself and all I stood for.
May is marking time in English universities. You’ll note this blog’s been quiet of late – the small matter of 350,000 words to assess and comment on in the space of four weeks. It’s a dawn till dusk job, thankful of lengthening days. ‘Surely you don’t actually read everything?’ some ask. The truth is that every word is read, scrupulously. If your mind wanders, you go back and start again.
Creative writing comes with a bonus, in that the marking is not a dry run of often dismally similar essays, much of it regurgitating your own teaching. Students have strained to give you the best of their imagination, study and craft. Marking-deadlines are severe, but in reality they’re always met so I’m learning not to let them trouble me. The piles of papers are not a mountain, but many individuals gifting you the best of themselves – that’s my sentimental reasoning, and holding to it works a treat.
So what am I assessing? How do I judge what is ‘creative’ or not? It’s that blending of imagination, daring, understanding born of reading, and crafting skills that lifts writing out of worthy dullness to being alive. Students aren’t assessed on areas they have not explored, so it’s fair to assess them on narrative drive, on their conscious use of tenses and voices and points of view, on their awareness of form at sentence and paragraph level, on the brazenness of their originality or the care that is evidenced in their choice and placement of words, in their use of rhythm or creation of silence, in the liveliness of dialogue or the easing of self-censorship. Sometimes, in judging competitions, I’ve formulated a grid and marked according to a range of different marking skills. It’s interesting that the results equate directly with the visceral ones, the degree to which a piece of writing has thrilled me. Times in this latest marking round my spine has rushed with the recognition of a writer’s truth, brought out from some depth and smoothly delivered. I’ve analysed, but I’ve also laughed and cried and be been brought into a powerful reflective silence.
And then comes double-marking, assurance that you are maintaining an objective stance. It’s a shame students can’t be shown a broadcast of one of these sessions, two lecturers discussing their work with engaged intensity. Debate on a single student’s work might last half an hour, no mere ‘splitting the difference’ but both sides coming to an agreed grade.
And then comes the summer, when creative writing tutors are released into their own work. That time’s coming, wonderfully it’s coming, but the marking of May is a fine if exhausting limbering. Analysis of the effects of writing slope into my unconsciousness, the perspective gained from studying others’ work slips into my own, and my own writing discovers new levels.
That’s soon, but later. First I have some more film scripts to mark before Sunday lunch.

Monday, May 11, 2009

J. S. Haldane's Oxford blue plaque

An invitation came from Sir Roger Elliott to be a guest at the unveiling of the Oxford Blue Plaque Society's 45th plaque, being fixed onto his house in Oxford.
John Scott Haldane moved into 11 Crick Road in 1991, bringing his new bride down the next year. They stayed through the birth of their second child, Haldane sealing off rooms, piping in gas, and running up and down ladders with the a miner's lamp to estimate the gas's distribution around the room. His efforts prevented many thousands dying from the domestic use of water gas in Britain, as was happening in the United States.
I last met Sir Roger (who has lived in the house for 50 years himself) when I was walking my way through J.S.Haldane's life, preparing my biography of the man, and knocked on the door of Crick Road. One of my main aims for the biography was that it would provoke others into examining J.S.Haldane's life. It was a treat to hear how Oxford is now proudly claiming Haldane as one of their own. The current reader in Physiology from the Oxford labs read my book over Easter so as to regale the assembly with his tales, and brought out Haldane's own haemoglobinometer, filled with Haldane's own blood.
I had travelled the country meeting the grandchildren of J.S.Haldane (through his daughter Naomi Mitchison) ... now many Haldanes and Mitchisons through several generations gathered together in what was once the great man's garden, still with one of the apple trees that gave splendid fruit more than a century ago.
A time comes when a biographer moves on. It's hard to do. Haldane's life is a rich one and there are many facets I've pondered exploring further, in fiction and nonfiction. But now others are running with my story as their own, my job is done.

I stepped from the house, set to walk through the site of Haldane's last home (demolished to make way for Wolfson College but still complete with his favourite walks along the Cherwell), but was flooded with gratitude for the man and the journey we took together, so I returned to take a look at his home one more time.
J.S.Haldane's was an enormously rich life, and it's been a true honour to merge my life with his for a while. I'm now gearing myself to write the life story of a Japanese priest, the next biographical strand in my life, but will surely be carrying lessons from Haldane along with me.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


How English it all was ... music by Purcell, text by Dryden, an Anglo-Saxon cast of soloists (plus a Swede which almost counts), and the most splendid tale of King Arthur as its subject, various mythical figures taking the stage before the closing to sing the wonders of this sceptered isle.
How grand to find delight in English lyrics, which somehow allow actors' faces to expressively distort their faces in precise enunciation:
'Honour's but empty, and when youth is ended,
All men will praise you but none will desire.
Let not youth fly away without contenting;
Age will come time enough for you repenting'
Fabulous stuff, Dryden! And how about this for a message ...
'The gods from above the mad labour behold,
And pity mankind that will perish for gold.'
Purcell's music is so ebullient it puts me in mind of Spinoza's statement: "Human nature is such that the sight [and sound] of others' happiness releases happiness in ourselves." We stepped away from the Barbican thrilled that London can give such a sublime evening.
Of course, it had flown in a French troupe to do so - Hervé Niquet's 'Le Concert Spirituel' from its base in Montpellier, Niquet conducting off-score so he could roam the stage, waving his arms like a sprite to conjure magic. How grand that the French can bring in so English a sound.
That was Wednesday. Thursday I flew to Munich, visiting Dachau as research for my new novel. I am now able to make an informed decision about who to vote for in Bavaria in the upcoming European elections (June 4th), for posters around the German cities showed me the candidates' faces and pithy summaries of their platforms. Roaming Plymouth and London I've not spotted one such poster (we get to vote but it's hardly worth the bother, Europe being over there). Britain didn't used to be so insular ... it brought in Handel and the Royal Family after all. And I guess we can be pleased it brings in masterful musicians even now. But for all the joys of Englishness, it is refreshing to escape our insularity for a while.