Sunday, 12 December 2010

The train goes running along the line

I am writing a short story at the moment set on a commuter train. It might be more accurate to say that it is set in the mind of a commuter, dealing with the repetition of those journeys, the way the little differences from one morning to the next become magnified against the familiar background.

Almost every weekday I take the same overground train East to West across London. Even though I grow weary of the struggle to wedge myself onto the train, and the every man for himself attitude that usually prevails, I still love to stare out of the window, when I can get near one. Trees, marshes and reservoirs slide past, pointing out the seasons that are hidden by the buildings that follow.

The train gets an unusual view on its path, taking you past the backs of everything. Instead of neat terrace fronts I can see the jumbly back gardens, washing flapping from awkward roof spaces, the places where foxes escape through the back fence into the strips of railway wilderness.

I remember the first time I spotted the rows of icicles fringing a station platform like its own secret Christmas decorations. Little views like that I sometimes wish I had captured, so I dared to get out my Diana camera with her new wide angle lens last week as I waited for my train, which was miraculously running. This is what she saw:

Some friends who came to live in London from Mexico used to say to me that London was blue, always blue. They meant it literally (they were professional photographers) but it took me a long time before I saw what they meant about the light here. You don't notice until you return from a faraway place, and then every view across the Londn skyline, from the bridges, morning or evening, seems to have a dusky blue filter across it. When I can't see it anymore because I've been in the city too long, one place where the air is always blue is in St Pancras, up under the roof.

I love big stations, but St Pancras is my favourite at the moment. My photo didn't do it justice at all, and failed to capture just how far away that roof seems, like a lid on a cool blue world that the inhabitatnts can never touch. It's probably a bit sad to admit it, but wandering about in there makes me glad to be in London again.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Diana in Rome

This is a view of the river taken from a bridge near Trastevere in Rome in October. I remember the colour of the sky, that odd royal blue that is bright and deep at the same time, and it has sort of shown up here. I sat Diana on the edge of the bridge and opened the shutter for about 15 seconds, meaning the lights that didn't seem so bright to the eye at the time now look like flares.

I like the way the pattern in that image echoes the one in this photo which is more recognisably of Rome:

When I first glimpsed the Coliseum from up the hill, the hairs on my neck prickled, and I was surprised to find my eyes watering. I hadn't expected such a familiar landmark to have an emotional effect on me, but it did, more than anything else I saw in Rome. I spent the five days gravitating back to this building and just staring, wondering why I was mesmerised. I still haven't figured it out. If I believed in past lives I'd say I must have been there before.

I had imagined Rome to be mash of honking traffic jams, pollution, and urban development crammed in amongst the ruins. It turned out to be a lovely city to walk around, with spaces and quiet to be found even in the busiest parts. Curtains of creepers hung everywhere, drawing me down side alleys and into dead ends with their flashes of green and red. I felt quite at home there, and would happily have settled into a few months of writing and wandering, fuelled by perfect espresso, finding new views of the Coliseum from Rome's hills.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ultimate nest-building

My father has been discussing recently the once-in-a-lifetime experience of fixing up the last house he will ever live in. He is enjoying riding rough-shod over the usual set of considerations that go into house-shaping – when you know that at some point you’ll have to sell it to another human being. With no plans ever to move again, he has filled the hall wall cavities with contingency stair lift wiring, and implemented a pressurised air-circulation and heating system that nobody else will ever be able to figure out, let alone make work.

Computer modelling has played a part in the process, as it sometimes does with his sculptures. However, when he made me my very first house for my fourth birthday, the starting point was a plastic swing-bin and a lot of carbon fibre. I remember watching him stirring that pot of thick yellow goo like fibrous custard, with no notion of what it would become.

What was unveiled later (literally – it was too big to wrap) appeared to be a three foot section of a real tree. He had hunted the woods for a fallen elm, carefully peeled strips of bark from the dead trunk, and reconfigured them to perfectly cover this new, irregular cylinder.  This tree, though, had tiny windows, and light glowed from behind their diminutive curtains.

Opening the front of the tree trunk section revealed a slightly less labyrinthine version of this:

Indulging my mouse obsession, and its outlet at the time via Brambly Hedge books, my parents had laboured for months to create three storeys of rustic mousey lifestyle. This was partly to distract me from the impending arrival of a sibling, but that doesn’t diminish their dedication. Kitchen table and chairs, the dresser, even the kitchen sink had been made by hand, after bed-time in clandestine fashion in the basement.

There were walnut and hazel shells for bowls, Quality Street wrappers for glowing coals in the fireplace, a piece of patterned corduroy edged with lace for a rug. Best of all were the mice: fully jointed by my father and dressed in loyal Brambly Hedge style by my mother.

Over the years, as with any house, the furnishings changed. Miniature mouse portraits, painted by my aunt and mounted in delicate frames, appeared on the walls. Later a friend who clearly had never read Brambly Hedge donated a grand piano and matching grandfather clock, which somewhat took over the sitting room. Meanwhile I blithely promised my friends that my dad would make another one for their birthdays, as if it had materialised at the click of a finger.

I never, ever tired of playing with my mouse house. Still, soon after, my father had re-created the harvest mouse’s nest from the same book series. After that, driven by my new fascination with moles, he permanently stained the bath tub while soaking and clamping open cork bark, to create mole tunnels I could populate with anthropomorphised diggers.

The mouse house still exists, as does the harvest mouse’s nest. When we unpacked the mouse house recently so that my father could do some much-needed restoration work, we remembered the terrifying moment when our new cats had found it and poked their paws through the windows to swipe at whatever was inside. How did they know there were mice inside, we wondered?

Twenty years later my cousin, who is young enough to call me Auntie by mistake, benefited from a revival in my father's nest-building. Nest II was born and is pictured here.

Those creations (I can't really bring myself to call them toys, they seem too special) embodied for the small me everything that was wonderful about a home.They were cosy, natural, full of strange joys such as ladders to rooms and secret back doors that still give me a thrill today. I hope that my father is applying the same principles to his own ultimate nest-building and making it into something that appeals to him and gives him joy, regardless of what any future inhabitants might think.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Come on snow - Diana loves you

I'm still waiting. It feels as though everybody except London has been plunged under the snow queen's spell, and I'm jealous. Fondly I recall that fortnight last year spent in wellington boots, when it seemed as though the pavements really had turned into iced rivers and would flow away when the thaw finally came.

I took these pictures around Henley-on -Thames, where my brother and I dusted down the sledge in the loft and slid triumphantly to the best tobogganing hill. My grandfather made the sledge out of gas piping decades before either of us were born, and it appears to be indestructible as well as unbelievably fast (I'm sitting on it my profile picture, terrified).

I used a colour film to take these photos, though you can hardly tell. I wonder what the result would have been in true black and white, which enhances the contrast. This year, I'm going to try out colour flash filters - little slips of coloured plastic that slide in front of the Diana flash bulb and tint the illuminated world. Snow seems like the best subject for these. When it does arrive, and it better do, I will capture it through Diana's rose-tinted spectacles.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Beauty, serenity and all that

I remember my mother’s friend commenting once that she’d seen me from a distance, walking along the street in the town where I grew up, and that I gave off an aura of serenity. At the time I was pleased if a little confused. Perhaps it was my purposeless teenage gait, or the slightly flaky, distant look in my eyes.

Now, in London, serenity can seem hard to come by. It takes an effort of will to remind myself that it’s a state of mind, not the state of the world around me, and that therefore it can be chosen to some extent. There’s no point in waiting for the world to deliver it to me.

When I first moved here I had the same concerns about beauty. I was leaving many things I found beautiful: my open fire, my walls painted a melodramatic purple named ‘Russian velvet,’ the views of misted green that appeared like pastoral visions at the end of so many Bristolian hill streets. I doubted the capacity of London streets to deliver up these little gems to me.

Sure enough, Walthamstow’s pavements have more than their fair share of gnawed chicken bones, spittle deposits and mangled pigeons. I had to learn to find the beauty in order to feel as though I would survive the urban onslaught. Luckily I did, with a little help from my friends. I spent my first year here marvelling from the tops of buses at the secret sights to be had.

The colour of an autumn tree lit by the blue TV light of the window behind; a small glove dropped just at the intersection of paving slabs, like a sign pointing nowhere; the creeper that has edged across the concrete floor of an empty shop; the rhythm of a pumping air vent, as if from a secret rave under the pavement.

For a while it became overwhelming. There were beautiful things to look at everywhere and I regretted whizzing past them. I became fanatical about the tops of bus stops, where accidental and deliberate arrangements of objects might be seen only by those staring from the upper deck.

For a long time there was a whole salad of fruit on top of a shelter at Kings Cross, complete with pineapple, while suitcases and travellers wheeled past below in their thousands, oblivious. On the 56 bus route through Hackney you could see, atop every shelter going North, a ball of plasticine stuck with wooden skewers. Each one was slightly different, and it became a game to see how long the secret art route could remain intact.

At some point I forgot to keep looking like this, not just at bus shelters but at the million moments of beauty that are everywhere in London. I was so grateful to be jolted back into it, and seeing these things and smiling brings not just beauty, but a bit of free serenity. With enough practice, maybe being serene doesn’t have to be an effort.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The view from down here

I can see the whole world. Floating in the south pacific ocean are a tiger, a camel, a bell, an anxious looking ghost (are they soluble in salt water?) and, I’ve just realised rather appropriately, a seal, an octopus and two lobsters. The seal is made of wool, like the tiger and the camel, which explains why he is not smiling. There is also a pair of Dutch kissing children. Up close they are not so cute, having hollow eyes and magnets in their mouths.

This little crowd of objects are on a shelf in front of a huge national geographic map. It gives me something to stare at when I’m bored with the sky, and reminds me how tiny I am. Even tinier than the finger puppets, Mexican toys and cracker prizes on the shelf. I tried to get rid of them when I painted my room over the weekend, but I couldn’t. Small things inspire me.

Children are said to be fascinated by the miniature, with various theories put forward as to why. They live for a while in an over-sized world, so do other small things appeal because they too are dealing with proportions not meant for them?

Personally I don’t think small things enthral small people because they relate to them. There is something alien and a bit scary about seeing the world from the point of view of a being a few inches high. That in itself is compelling. It brings the possibility of seeing the world another way – with us as the giants, even children – and from that, the question of which of these views is the ‘right’ way. Hopefully the next step in this reasoning will be to realise that perhaps there isn’t a ‘right’ way, and ping! We can get our heads around the idea that what is normal for one person may be very different from what is normal for another.

I didn’t grow out of my obsession with the miniature, but then it was instilled in me quite thoroughly, partly by my parents – other grown-ups with a love of small and hidden worlds.

My father had kept a box from his childhood, resembling a treasure chest but about six inches long, which he called his Borrower box. Inside were a tiny pocketknife, an inch long but with a blade you could pull out just like his man-size Swiss army knives, a mouth organ with real reed chambers that a Borrower could have played, and other diminutive wonders. I coveted these objects but I didn’t assume they were meant for me, or other children. I could see how precious they were even to an adult.

I find myself doing the same, now I’m a grown-up of sorts. All these tiny things – inch-high zapatista dolls, a rubber duck the size of a sugar cube, a baby doll the size of a button – are not being saved in case I meet a small person who wants them. They let me dive into a world I love that feeds my imagination, and hold onto different ways of seeing that still excite me.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Diana goes gothic

This is Abney Cemetery in Stoke Newington, North London. It is chaotic and crumbling in the best possible way, though some of the living inhabitants are more creepy than the ghosts. Diana made it super-gothic in the low light of a cloudy day.

I think this was three separate exposures, at Pere Lachaise in Paris. It doesn't work that well; there's a better one here. It was fun trying to work out which images would overlay well and I'm still learning.

Near Oscar Wilde's lipstick-smattered grave at Pere Lachaise lies Victor Noir, his groin rubbed to a gleam by tourists. I left him his dignity and missed that bit out... I walked round and round him, trying to find an angle that would make a good image, and then clearly gave up.

Nest stop Walthamstow cemetery, hopefully in this winter's snow.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Stag-hunting for commuters

I spotted an article the other day suggesting that commuters needed to learn how to board trains in a fashion that caused least delays, and that this in itself would ease some passenger pain.

Nobody needs to be taught how to wait on a platform in such a way as to allow the flow of disembarking people; basic common sense tells us this. What has broken down in these situations that ruins so many people’s mornings is coordination (with one another, not of our limbs), and cooperation.

Behaviour driven by the ‘every man for himself’ motto only has to be exhibited by a few people, and the cooperative crowd breaks down. I am using ‘cooperative’ here in a philosophical sense as well as a social one. Human beings live in societies, and societies only work if their members act in ways that benefit them as one of a group.

Brian Skyrms explores one form of this kind of cooperation in his book The Stag Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure. Briefly, the hunters in a group can choose between hunting a stag together or hunting hares alone. An individual cannot catch a stag by himself, but if enough hunters join in, there will be a lot more meat to go around if they are successful. The same individual might manage to catch a hare on his own, but there are two outcomes: firstly there will be less meat, and secondly he reduces the chances of success for the smaller stag-hunting group. If enough individuals decide to go hare hunting, there won’t even be a stag hunting group, and overall each individual with a hare is less well off.

I’m writing this from a decade-old memory, but that is the gist. We can apply it to the commuters. A few people decide to go their own way, and the whole group is less well off as a result. That is, if a critical mass decide not to cooperate, refusing to standing back from train doors, then cooperation becomes not only pointless but damaging for the rest of us. Like two foolhardy stag hunters setting out without their companions, if two people decide to stand back and allow others to pass them, they’ll never make it onto the train. They’ve ended up with no meat at all because some people went hare-hunting.

I don’t think presenting my fellow travellers with a prĂ©cis of Skyrms’ book is going to improve my mornings. But neither will pointing out to people, as the article attempted to do, that if we all stood back everyone would have a better time. They already know this, at some level. They are already cooperative beings in as much as we live in this society; coordination and cooperation are built into their ways of thinking without them needing to know it. Instead they exercise their individual choice over how to act, and the self-interested decision-making of a few leaves everybody worse off.

That said, even more people would be worse off if all these individuals chose to drive to work rather than fight their way on and off a train. I will try to remember this the next time I am bundled away from the carriage by a series of environmentally-considerate elbows: we are actually coordinating on a higher level to the benefit of the planet.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Diana on the canal

At this time of year I am forced to give up a precious part of my London life for another season: walking home along the canals. Even though I work about eight miles from my flat, it is possible to cover the vast majority of this distance through wooded walkways, parks and towpaths.

Once I had learned how to access these green tunnels through London, I found that a lot of journeys can be diverted away from the traffic and towards trees and water. Tiny locks, smoke from house boats, laughing ducks and fishermen contribute to the microcosm of countryside along the way.

On the other hand, part of what I love about waterways in London is the juxtaposition of green water with unabated urban or industrial development. Given that canals used to have functions other than that of cycle super-highway, it feels natural that these things are around them, and viewed from the canal side they become more wistful, more beautiful.

 In Paris recently with my friend Lou we walked the length of the Canal St Martin in the North-East of the city. We joked that the area, and adjoining Belleville, were really the Hackney of Paris, but the more we explored the more appropriate the comparison became. We found all the things we love about Hackney and Hackney Wick repeated and rendered temporarily more exotic by the language difference - an effect we wished away when we found the best graphic novel bookshop we'd ever seen.

The Canal St Martin felt like home, and we claim her series of lovely iron bridges as our own, including the ghost bridges...

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Writers' group: a performance

Once a week I zigzag through the curry-house equivalent of chuggers on Brick Lane and arrive at Eastside Books to spend two hours with a group of writers, reading and critiquing one another’s work.

Three or four members might read their work during a given session, followed by critical discussion with a twist: the reader sits outside of the conversation, listening but not responding, until all our incredibly incisive, uncannily useful and crucially constructive comments have been dispensed.

Strange things happen. As the reader, turning marks on a page into sound, all the obvious edits pop out as you read as though your voice has a highlight function. That process in itself, without the ensuing debate, is so useful as to quickly become essential; I’ve tried imagining an audience in order to do this at home and it just doesn’t work, however good your imagination might be.

Likewise, listening and contributing can be as instructive as hearing a critique of your work. Thinking about how a writer could improve some element of their piece, I inevitably realise I can apply the approach I come up with to my own writing. Giving constructive criticism for weeks without reading your own work is not as selfless as it seems; these sessions send me back to my work with renewed possibilities, many derived from other people’s feedback directed at a fellow group member.

Funny things also happen, most often when somebody brings in a script and we read it as a group. Characters become tinged with the personalities of the readers, or flattened by our less-than-superlative acting skills. A soldier’s machismo on the page might get mistranslated via a small English voice into a kind of psychotic confusion, or bravado-filled banter reduced to an odd flirting ritual.

We usually end up laughing during these kinds of readings, but this is no reflection on the writer’s ability. This has heightened my concerns about the effect of my own voice on an audience’s reception. I have felt horribly self-conscious reading at open mic nights in London, sensing that RP and good diction are not only unfashionable but somehow unwelcoming, especially when used to deliver comic verse.

I also wonder whether this influences what I write on paper; if a character or style would sound ridiculous in my own voice, do I shy away from it?

This week the writers' group is finalising plans for an anthology of our short stories. Having debated for months over themes, titles and formats, in the end an ingenious solution appeared. For each member, someone else in the group who is familiar with their writing will come up with three titles or ideas designed to get them out of their comfort zone.

This is a brilliant device to get everyone engaged, because it generates so much pure glee. Thinking of a title for someone else is so much more fun than doing it for yourself, and the game of making it as challenging for them as possible is irresistible, even if somewhat sadistic. I for one hope we’ve all been as vicious as possible – an attitude we never demonstrate, I should add, towards each other’s actual writing.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Diana and Fenella compliment one another

Fenella Beach, in Peel, Isle of Man, is even prettier in colour.

A room of one's own

I did have one. I had an entire flat, in fact, with my very own damp problem, my own open fire, my own choice of wall colours and my own company. The last of these, initially my favourite, became a kind of burden and I learned how to share space again.

Luckily for me I have shared my space with a person I appreciate for the last two years. We even have our own rooms, aside from a big sitting room and plenty of bathroom. I love my room. It is filled with beautiful detritus, pieces of places I have been to, gifts from people I will never forget. I also love my desk, even if it is invisible under layers of bank statements and annotated drafts waiting to be re-read. It is the place where I write and think and sometimes just pretend to be doing these things; it is my haven.

The room itself used to be this. Then it became the shared sleeping place, the repository of late night teacups and pieces of clothing dumped in a haze. The sacred space receded, until the desk, being furthest from the door to this long room, was all that was left.

I could probably live with this, if my desk came with an automatic shield that descended around it (and me) like the carapace around the batmobile. Or if it was actually inside a tiny shed, with a hole cut on the other side so I could see the moon through the room’s window. But the problem is not the desk; it is the bed.

Only a cruel person would stop their loved ones from crawling under the duvet when they need to, even if this is at 8pm on a mild Monday evening. I am not so heartless. Is the light turning of a book’s pages several feet away really such a distraction for a seasoned writer? I can write in cafes, pubs, on trains, at festivals; I can surely deal with this.

Neither should the gentle trill of a loved person’s nose as they drift into sleep at 8:24pm pose a challenge. After all, a sleeping person cannot interrupt the flow of thought…

Should I blame myself, I wonder? Is it some trait in me that turns on the ticking of awareness when another body is nearby? Is it an excuse for my own failure to focus?

Perched on the edge of the couch in the sitting room, glaring at the rack of damp washing that is now my company, I resent my own quiet rage. I resent my banishment from the haven, but it is self-imposed, it is my fault. Share, I tell myself. Give and the world will give back. But it won’t give me back my room, and I don’t have the heart to take it.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Diana in her element

Experimenting with double and triple exposures using my Diana camera at Pere Lachaise cemetery in September.