Saturday, 15 January 2011

Welcome to Britain, Uncle Lubitel

Another new challenge arrived with me this week, in the form of a vintage Russian Lubitel 166 camera (image above courtesy of Motivated as usual to maximise both beauty and utility in the objects I have, I went for a more obscure model purely because it had Russian lettering on it. I then discovered it has a small plate bearing the emblem of the Moscow Olympics, which took place in 1980. So, this camera was probably produced in the same year as I was: 1979.

Happy synchronicity, but being a one-off (the camera, of course) it doesn't quite match any of the Lubitel manuals available online, which are hard enough to follow thanks to terrible translations. Perhaps they are useless in Russian too, but I wasn't planning to buy Teach Yourself Cyrillic Script this year.

To me this camera is quite intimidating enough without its added idiosyncracies. In order to use it I have to get to grips with f-numbers, apertures and exposures in a way that Diana doesn't ask of me at all. Luckily my brother lent me a technical introduction to photography at Christmas, and for once non-fiction content is acutally gripping me.

Apparently, if you manage to keep it still, a Lubitel can take very sharp shots, doing away with the fuzzy dream world that Diana tends to live in most of the time. That said, even looking through the glass in the top of the camera - the giant viewfinder - is like being transported to another world. Perhaps the glass is tinted, but what I see through it has quite a different atmosphere from the world it purports to show me.

I shan't be neglecting Diana while I get to know what I am already thinking of as her stern, slightly turgid uncle. She will still bring welcome lightness and silliness in contrast to Lubitel's heavy, unfamiliar frame. Just to prove her mettle, here's an example of what Diana is best at:

We'll see what Lubitel can do in my inexpert hands soon.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Research: procrastination, self-indulgence or necessity?

I had an epiphany on Wednesday morning, at 8.24, on the corner of Albert Road and Leopold Road. It’s a wonderful experience, when everything comes at once, and I floated the next few hundred yards swearing under my deep breaths as I examined this wonderful free gift of thought content.

One of the consequences of this is that my current novel now has a real world setting, in a real time, beginning around 1928. I can’t do anything about this; the epiphany has determined it, and it feels right. As I swayed back and forth on the commuter train a few minutes later my mind was gleefully listing all the things I would have to find out about.

This is a familiar high, resulting, I think, from years of academic research. It is a relief and a joy, at the start of a project, to know that before any of my own ideas or arguments can be expressed, there are at least ten papers and three books that must be read and scribbled on and plundered for their pithiest phrases.

Later it becomes an excuse; there’s always one more paper, one more reference, that might contain something really important, before I can attack the blank page. By then, of course, there are pages and pages of notes that must be read and scribbled on and plundered for their pithiest phrases…

Research can start to feel self-indulgent partly because it’s one of those things that is never really finished, but also because afterwards, when the argument has been formed and expressed, so much of it can appear redundant. I don’t think it always is, and perhaps research for creative purposes is different from that for argumentative ones. Immersing oneself in an era, a place or a place, and letting it rub off even if individual details are discarded, must be useful.

Last year I listened to Peter Carey talk about his new book Parrot and Olivier in America, admitting that in the end he didn’t use 90% of his research. An architect had painstakingly drawn up the plans of a house that the ‘real’ Olivier had lived in, and Carey didn’t even look at them while he wrote. But he visited similar places and the atmosphere infected him.

He’s not the only writer I’ve heard making this kind of admission, so I feel vindicated as I pore over websites uncovering obscure characters from the early twentieth century. Deep down I know that there must be a point where enough research turns into too much, but that point is still far away.

Last year I also listened to two successful authors of fiction declaring that they never did any research. It’s fiction, they said, you’re supposed to be making it up. They urged their audience of budding writers not to bother either. Perhaps they were lucky and were writing on subjects and in genres that didn’t require background information.

I certainly didn’t plan to write something that would mean precious writing time would be taken up with learning. My first novel required very little. But as I said, it’s the epiphany’s fault, and now I can’t wait to dive in, especially as my first port of call will be Leighton House Museum. I will tell you all about it next time.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Reading for pleasure and inspiration

Does anyone who has read more than twenty books have a favourite book of all time? Someone asked for mine recently, and then before I’d even started thinking admitted that it was a silly question.

Avid readers I know do have books they go back to though, for reasons of mood, the desire to indulge in a guaranteed pleasure, or frustration at not finding anything new that they like. I reread two books that I would count as favourites recently, each for different reasons.

As a writer, reading a book that is brilliantly written can be a risky business, as the skill on display can make you want to give up there and then. Other times, the presence of such talent can be so exciting and inspiring that I have to stop reading in order to jot down ideas. Both of these books remind me why it is worth the effort of writing, and trying to improve, in the hope that something even a tenth as good will come out.

The first is The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. This book is my equivalent of a well-worn DVD box set. It demonstrates the kind of writing that is so good you forget that it’s there, and instead enter the world beyond the words. It is long, so can be read for hours at a time, and knowing how it ends takes nothing away from the narrative. It slides effortlessly back and forth in time, following three female friends as their lives are wrecked by the ultimate calculating femme fatale.

It is a book about recovery, really, and how friends can help a person accommodate calamity into the narrative of life. Or at least it bears that reading, being rich in themes that characterise several of Margaret Atwood’s earlier novels to do with self, womanhood, and fitting into a world that doesn’t seem to fit you. I read it greedily, wallowing in the three lead characters and letting them feed me the way they feed each other with defiance and black humour and love.

Occasionally, when I can bring myself to slow down, I notice the deftness of expression, the choice of words and of omissions, and the way the reader can gradually see over the heads of the characters and recognise the fault lines in their versions of their lives. It is rich in humanity, and provides desolation and warmth in equal measure.

The second is Pollard, by Laura Beatty. There is no female solidarity in this book, though plenty of defiance in the face of an unfriendly world. Instead of humanity, it revels in the beauty of nature, as a girl who is a mental and physical misfit in the conventional world attempts to survive alone in the woods.

Her success in doing so, even temporarily, brings an irresistible sense of relief at the achievement of an underdog, but it is the writing about woodland that makes reading this such an intense experience of beauty. It makes me want to run out into the wildest parts of Epping forest and set up camp immediately, but also I turn to my notebook, feeling validated as I indulge in description.

Laura Beatty does it so cleverly though, keeping her description simple in a way that befits her central character, who starts out with no names for flowers or knowledge of bird calls. She is never smug in her understanding of woods in the way some nature writers can be about their subjects.

So, two sort-of favourite books that I wouldn’t recommend to everyone but which I know I will read again and again for many years, in the hope that some of the shine will rub off onto my own writing.