Posts Tagged ‘writer’s voices’

Those who doubt

December 9, 2010

Rubbish – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behaviour of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much that they establish systems of censorship to repress it, and keep so wary an eye on independent writers.’

This pertinent admonition is from Mario Vargas Llosa’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  (More of it on The Guardian book page.)

Those who doubt that his world view has any great relevance to writers in Britain might consider the strange case of the Public Lending Right, about which I wrote so eulogistically back in February 2010, when my payment was due.  The PLR has escaped relatively lightly, so far, in the cuts; payment per loan drops from 6.29p to 6.25p, which is variously interpreted as a 3% or 1% reduction (as the Society of Authors point out, this is merely a mathematical excercise).  More laborious calculation brings forth the figure of a 6% (or 10%) cut in real terms over the next four years.  All the figures are available on the PLR’s own website, where even a non-mathematician can see that the annual budget available from which to make the payments is considerably less in each successive year.

The ‘Culture Team’, and the various politicians who implement these matters, take the line that everyone else is losing income and funding, so why should authors be any exception?  What they haven’t managed to justify, or even begin to explain, is why the pay-out organisation itself  – PLR – should be abolished and its work transferred to some other body.  The PLR has done its job for over 30 years, in Stockton-on-Tees, with a staff of nine people plus the Registrar.  They spend 10% of the total budget on running costs (maybe less, after recent savings) – and it’s obvious that no other body could do their complicated and specialist task so cheaply and efficiently.  The cost of transferring the job elsewhere would be enormous, and the organisations to which it might be sent – the Arts Council, or the British Library, are among the suggestions – have already suffered cuts of their own, and will be hard put to it to fulfill their previous obligations, without taking on onerous new duties.

Many writers’ organisations have, of course, taken up arms; the PLR is uniquely popular for its ethos of politeness and respect towards authors.  Although PLR is acknowledged as a legal right, it still needs administrating, as well as funding, so to attack the way in which it gets handed out is a fundamental threat to its actual existence.  This is an indirect but very effective way of making it even more difficult to be an author in the future. Writers’ representatives also gave evidence to the select committee of enquiry on the ‘Funding of Arts and Heritage’  on 7th December, where they emphasised, again, the tiny budget allocated to ‘Literature, the work of our writers, acknowledged throughout the world as our greatest art…’ (as Maureen Duffy described it in her speech to the All Party Parliamentary Writers’ Group).

Despite all the action, the petitions and the statements of clear sense, the outcome seems unlikely to be good.  There might be a stay of execution, if it’s publicly acknowledged as blatantly nonsensical to cut such a model organisation – but since there was, evidently, never any reason to consider PLR a quango whose abolition would save money, it must be presumed that there were other motives for deciding that it must go. Which brings even those who doubt, by a circular path, back to the observation that there is an ideological distrust of writers at work here, from a regime not unrelated to those who ‘fear [literature] so much that they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers.’

A matter of luck

October 7, 2010

The view from the hill – photograph by Liz Mathews

For National Poetry Day, one of my own poems. I wrote Sicilian Avenue many years ago; it was awarded a York Poetry Prize by Michael Donaghy, in the early 1990’s.  At the ceremony, where all the prize poems were read, and cheques given out to the winners, he was extremely gracious. (He was also very patient when his audience seemed to prefer it when he played traditional Irish music on the tin whistle, rather than read his own work.)  

But although he was encouraging to me, as a young writer, indeed complimentary about the poem and ‘…the simplicity and intimacy of the narrative and great closure of the last line’, I was also aware that sentiment had played a part in all of his selections.  Not that he chose any poems that seemed to me to be unworthy, but they all had a particular reason to appeal to him.  Mine had that extra ingredient because it evoked a place he knew in London, and of which he was fond.  

(And after all, who would want to read a poem without bringing their own associations to the words, or aligning their own experiences to the work?  What an impossible task it would be to try and ‘judge’ between poems impartially, when the very existence of poetry is the opposite of a measurable or quantifiable state.) 

At the time, I felt slightly uncomfortable at this discovery. Now I realise that it’s merely the element of luck that’s always needed in the competitive process, but also makes that process almost meaningless, so far as grading a work of art ‘best’ or ‘unplaced’.  Inevitably, the results are a matter of the reader’s taste; sometimes one sort of writer is in luck, sometimes another.  I was fortunate that this poem appealed to such a poet.

Sicilian Avenue

Enthroned behind his ziggurats of glass

displaying haberdashery embalmed

aeons ago in the prevailing fashion,

the old boy contemplates an aspic realm;

muffled in solid brass, mahogany,

drawers uniformly filled, precisely labelled,

in copperplate by alphabet and size.

His memory’s heraldic, crested, striped

with regimental and collegiate colours;

he doesn’t seem to think that we’re procuring

old school ties for improper purposes

(although we look like just the kind of women

to ridicule continued tribal marking).

‘Old Carthusians pre-1924’

requires a tremulous ascent of steps,

courteously refusing proffered help.

Something about us prompts him to remark

that ‘Amy Johnson came to us, you know,

to get her aviation things.  Oh, yes,

we did Ladies’ Colonial Wear then’.

He recites, in an archive record’s crackle,

the inventory of pith-helmets and veils,

and canvas carrying-skirts, so necessary

to keep one’s distance from the naked shoulders

transporting one across malarial rivers…

Here Amy Johnson, in the changing-room

trying on cashmere combinations (men’s,

designed to conquer an imagined arctic

not keep a woman warm above cloud-level)

broke down and wept, late, after closing time.

Her tears still echo in his anxious voice

condemning ‘all the things they said about her’

despite her triumphs, in the newspapers.

He found the warmest styles, the smaller sizes,

wished her the best of luck for her next flight,

wrapped the heroic underwear she’d usurped,

shook hands in homage to their odd alliance –

and still he flies her unofficial colours,

a favour filed in his anarchic system

above the patronage of baronets.

Our dear mother English

August 17, 2010

LESS NOISE PLEASE – photograph by Liz Mathews

Certain words – solace, grace, benediction – recur when people describe why certain works of art are precious to them.  Poetry is often invoked as a specific against the sorrows of life, and a part of its beauty; an expression of the otherwise unsayable and a way of approaching some sort of understanding of these things.  It is a better way of communicating certain thoughts than any other, even when we acknowledge the common fact that words carry a freight of association and variant meaning which weighs differently for each individual.  Obviously, our diversity of experience, not to mention the flexibility of meaning, makes even accepted language an approximate conveyer of ideas, at best.

Literature has always exploited this private language within everyone, both to portray misunderstanding or failure of communication, and also to say more, many things at once, or even opposing things simultaneously.  The exposure of the writer’s own associations of words, the translation out of the inner language, has created some of the most powerful writing ever.  The individual freight words carry, their differentness for each reader, is one of the writer’s greatest opportunities.

When I was working in a gallery, I had a difficult encounter with a Christian who would not accept that the words ‘heaven’, ‘blessing’ or ‘holy’ should be used in any other artistic context than a strictly Christian one (even though the artwork in question quoted a direct translation from classical Greek…).  Eventually we got to the stage where he said that it wasn’t appropriate for non-Christians to listen to a Mozart mass, apparently under the impression that the whole of Western art was his private patrimony, closed to all but a minority of the world.

To suggest that words are not the property of any sect, or forbidden to any other community, is hardly a radical statement.  But it’s complicated, in practice, by the holiness – if I may use the word – of certain words to certain people, in their own particular sense.  In this place where such rich possibilities of poetry lie, even as I insist on the validity of my own reading, I must acknowledge the possibility of other, different ones.

This causes problems for the writer not so much in these attempts to own words (a completely futile effort), but the kidnap of words for sullying uses.  There are a proliferation of dead contemporary jargons which diminish the richness of words, strip them of their associations, leave them without a homeland or a history.  (We all use these non-words in the sterile language of computers, for example, which once offered a truly Elizabethan opportunity to coin new words, but instead took a sinister delight in misusing old ones.) This is the opposite of the genuine secret tongues of trades and places, esoteric words or dialects whose words gradually enrich the common language.

Foreign imports, such as the borrowings the French try to exclude from their official speech, are also a vibrant sign of life that might as well be welcomed, since to police the immigration boundaries here is a doomed enterprise, a struggle against history.  Real slang, which is also part of the development of a language, can be incredibly useful to a writer – like the other specialist languages, especially when it tells its own story of place or background.  The disadvantage is that it freeze-frames at a certain period; in a skilled writer the catchphrases of their own era are marked, so that the later reader can understand their significance and laugh or wince as appropriate.  But if it isn’t a Jane Austen or George Eliot, it can be hard work to disentangle.

But it’s the blatant kidnap that makes real difficulties for a contemporary writer.  How can we use words purely, honestly, with faith in their power, (even in the knowledge of their diverse meanings), when they are taken in vain with such routine extremism?  Margarine called ‘pure’, drinks called ‘innocent’, tampons called ‘liberty’, shoes called ‘freedom’, all attempt to subvert the poetic use of language to commercial ends.  Unfortunately, everyone now understands that ‘home’ is a place on the computer, ‘family’ means a larger size, and ‘urban’ is a black version of something that is ‘beach’ when it’s flowery.  Imagine trying to write a poem, then deciding to avoid the word ‘word’ because a computer programme is called that.

But, in wanting to defend the joint stock of our common language against such corruptions, am I too making an attempt to own the words myself?  The only way forward, for a writer, is to make a resolution to speak one’s own language with all its personal associations, private messages, local words, idiosyncracies, embedded quotations, dialect usages, and all, while remaining open to other voices, whose words may differently weighted.  And then, to resist the rest.

A kind of translation

August 10, 2010

Shadowselves – photograph by Liz Mathews

I’ve been reading a lot of books in translation recently, in one of those enjoyable chains of association that’s set off by chance, one thing leading to another, with new discoveries as well as re-discoveries of new contexts for things read separately before.  The problems (and odd advantages) of translation are perennial provokers of thought and discussion, but there’s no arguing about the different light that another literature can cast even on familiar ideas.

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, for example, in a lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is referenced by that other much-translated Portuguese writer José Saramago, in his The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which I haven’t yet read; I’m still on The Elephant’s Journey.  (After Saramago’s recent death, I was moved to read an account of his funeral in Lisbon, attended by  tens of thousands of people, many of them carrying his books.  There was a photo of a book held in the air like a flag, then the inevitable editorial comment that it was hard to imagine a similar outpouring of grief for a British writer – or any other kind of artist, you might add.)

Reis was one of Pessoa’s personae; in the Book of Disquiet he writes as Bernardo Soares.  The introduction explains that he had over 72 distinct ‘heteronyms’ which he used when writing the works which were largely unpublished in his lifetime.  Externally, Soares appears much the same as the writer, but Pessoa found the character different enough to merit its own name; ‘It’s me minus reason and affectivity’.  (Completely other, then…)  These complexities and levels of irony will be discussed and unravelled by scholars, perhaps in perpetuity, but at a simpler level the proliferation of authorial personae perhaps gives a clue to the crucial difference between the writer and their work, which seems almost imperceptible to many otherwise sophisticated readers.

Before going any further, I must confess here that I have read a review of a book by someone I know and immediately remarked that it sounded very autobiographical, before I’d even read it.  (But at least I can differentiate enough to understand that because murder is committed in the book, it doesn’t mean the writer is a killer.)  Any writer must be aware that their audience – if they are lucky enough to have one – contains a proportion of people who would simply lump all of Pessoa’s 72 heteronyms into one authorial autobiography, unmitigated by art.  I first encountered this long ago, at a literary festival, where I read a short story of a very lyrical and fantastic kind, then had an impertinent audience question about the ‘revealing’ nature of the piece.  It really hadn’t occurred to me that the poetic tale of archetypes (mermaids, gypsies at al) could be taken as any kind of personal confession.

This incident has recurred in various manifestations; one which I found disturbing was when a reader questioned me about the dedication in my long poem MOTHERTONGUE – apparently my relationship to the dedicatee (and who they were) made a difference to whether the work would ‘emotionally ring true’.  The implication of this is that a writer’s literal circumstances are what make the work ‘ring true’ or not, rather than some element within the writing and – indeed –  that they can only write about their actual life experience with any emotional conviction.  So, no writing divorces for the happily united, or vice versa; no observation, imagination, empathy, or even research? 

Then, imaginative works are open to the blunt interpretations of cod-pyschology, as though the artist is innocent of all such readings and might ‘accidentally’ reveal their secrets. Recently, in a very obvious train of thought onwards from news about my forthcoming novel, a relation remarked that – in a book he’d actually read – the hero was obviously the author’s fantasy-self, since a succession of beautiful women ‘couldn’t wait to get into bed with him’.  (I could only assure him that my novel is just like that.)  I comfort myself with the fact that The Principle of Camouflage has three very strange narrators, who couldn’t  – surely – be interpreted as anybody’s fantasy selves; not nearly as close as Bernardo Soares to Fernando Pessoa. The lowering part of this is the knowledge that some readers – perhaps the most avid – skim through books for scandal, intimate details, possible revelations, ignoring the dull truth that it’s a little more subtle than that. 

The moment comes when every artist has to accept this as a hazard of the work, and just get on with it.  I was half appalled, half encouraged when I read Maureen Duffy’s introduction to her first novel That’s How It Was – even this brilliant book has suffered from its own absolute success.  Since the author described it as directly autobiographical, it seems that some readers failed to perceive its superb technical command, and read it as an artless outpouring of youthful emotion.  She writes of these undervaluing admirers who have ‘failed to grasp its purpose and structure…[who] believe too that its vividness and intensity were a welling up from memory rather than the deliberate exercise of style’.

If it’s a kind of translation, from lived experience to art, maybe an awareness of the translating process is crucial to the appreciation of the work. And perhaps, for those who risk exposing their imaginations in print, the idea of the 72 alternative authors interposing themselves between the life and the work, will prove to be a virtual guard of honour.

Ancestral Voices

February 8, 2010

Rather like the Public Lending Right, the BBC is an anachronism, a great British institution which – despite all attempts at reconstruction, modernisation and fumigation – still retains a distinct whiff of Reithian atmosphere. (This refers to BBC radio, of course. What may go on in the alien universe of television is another matter.) Even now, on Radio 3 and 4, the virtues of cultural inclusiveness, palatable education and campaigning journalism, so distrusted by Mrs Thatcher, survive against the odds.

Within this vaguely socialist ethos, literature is still supported, both through official book programmes, and more sporadically. It turns up in unexpected places; poetry creeps onto Woman’s Hour, writers are interviewed on music programmes. Turned on at random, the radio is suddenly loud with Chekhovian women longing for Moscow, or the rhythmic wood-pigeon cooing which turns out to be Yeats reading Innisfree.

Last week, Radio 3’s Composer of the Week was William Walton, so Edith Sitwell intoned Façade, as she quite frequently does. The maniac delights of this must have sent many people, like me, to look again at her work, and marvel.

This week on Radio 4, there will be Vita Sackville-West talking about herself as Orlando; a treasure not so rare as Virginia Woolf on words, but nevertheless a glittering moment. It’s on the repeated From the Ban to the Booker, a two part series on books from Radclyffe Hall’s banned The Well of Loneliness to the multiple Booker nominations of Ali Smith and Sarah Waters. (As well as Ali, Sarah, Jeanette Winterson, Diana Souhami et al, it includes a contribution from me about Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner.)

Contemporary writers have a perhaps surprisingly strong presence on the radio. In the remote future, if the BBC excavates these literary dialogues from the archives, presumably they’ll seem as other-worldly as the period pieces from the mid-twentieth century do now – ancestral voices echoing across the airwaves.

From the Ban to the Booker, BBC Radio 4, Thursday 11th and Friday 12th February 23.30. (Or listen again on