Kathleen Jowitt writes contemporary fiction about people sorting their heads out and learning to live with who they are.
Back in the December of 2018, I thought that I’d really like to have a completed first draft of my next novel by the October of 2019. I did the maths, and worked out that I needed to write 680 words on each of my scheduled writing days, to get to 80,000 words by October.
As of this moment, the word count of The Real World stands at 93,422 words. That’s not counting the page of longhand I’ll be typing up when I’ve finished this post. That’s not counting the major expansion of the final scene that I know needs doing.
It is not done. It is a long, long way off being done. I need to add quite a lot more. And then I need to take a hell of a lot out.
Nevertheless, I sent it to my friend Sam. And even when I sent it I knew about a lot of things that needed doing. A showdown with Barry/expand the final scene/give Rowan a description FFS!/ditch the boring Freshers. And so on.
I tell myself that I don’t usually get people to read my drafts until I can’t think of anything else to do that will improve them. I’m not sure this is actually true. I thought I’d learned last time round that if I send things to people too early, I inevitably end up sending a follow-up saying, no, please ignore what I sent you last month: I’ve deleted three chapters and introduced a new character!
Anyway, I sent it to Sam. I think (he was too polite to say this in so many words) he was disappointed. And when he explained what seemed to be lacking (and after I’d taken myself out for a coffee and a chat with myself) I saw his point. I’d sent it about three drafts too early, and most of the characters were stick people with religious affiliations affixed.
This morning I read an interview with Stéphane Lambiel, in which he talked about his work as a skating coach. And he said this:
I see a lot of ballet performances, and I see the ballet dancers – they are real athletes. And they need every cell of their body to be conscious, to be spot on. And it’s not only about the tricks, it’s really about every single move – and you don’t lie when you are on stage. Every judge, every crowd, every person will see it, will see you – there is no way to hide. No way.
It’s equally true of writing. Many times I’ve been tempted to let something slip past, some tiny change I know I ought to make, and don’t, have shied away from writing a scene that scared me.
‘I’ll get away with this one,’ I think.
I never do. If I don’t pick it up and do something about it, one of my editors will.
And what’s annoying me is the fact that I already knew this.
Part of it was loneliness. I just wanted someone to talk to about my book.
But the other thing, the thing that threw me, I think, was the fact that with A Spoke In The Wheel I was working with a much more obvious structure. I had a much better idea of what I needed to write. Last time, I undershot. Ever since Speak Its Name came out at 80,000 words, I’ve had that in my head as a decent length to aim at. A Spoke In The Wheel only just got to 70,000 words, and it never needed any more. There are 260 words in the ‘deleted, might still come in useful’ file. I knew where things had to go, I could see where the gaps were, I knew what the end had to look like and how to get there. I got it done in less than two years. Speak Its Name had taken me eight.
I thought I knew how to write a book now.
I know, of course, that Speak Its Name was up at 115,000 words at one point. But I cut most of those extraneous 35,000 words simply by ditching anything that wasn’t from the main character’s point of view, and it didn’t hurt much.
I thought I knew how to write a book now.
And yet here we are, 93,422 words and still counting; 93,422 words, and a lot of work still to be done.
In fact, it turns out that both the Stancester books are slippery beasts, liable to twist and change and turn out to be very different from what I once thought they would be. My perception is that The Real World is even more troublesome than Speak Its Name, but I probably would say that from where I am inside the middle of it. Ten months ago, something happened inside my head that made me revisit one major plot strand, not to make any huge changes to what happens within it, but to adjust the language I’d used around it: I knew more, now; I knew enough to know that I hadn’t got it right. In January, that thing in my head changed back again; two days after that, the House of Bishops released its ‘pastoral statement’ and I realised that the book wasn’t nearly angry enough… It keeps changing. I trust that it will, eventually, settle down into what it’s meant to be: a decent book.
I remember that I know all this. I have learned it before. I know that I need to move the tedious but necessary political bits into the chapter headings. I know that I need to give my characters physical descriptions and interests outside whatever the main plot is this time. I know that if I’m letting my characters be influenced by outside events, I have to find a way for them to own them.
And I know not to get other people to look at it until there is nothing else I can think of to improve, or, if I do, to prepare for a tantrum from the part of me that doesn’t like other people seeing me in a state of anything less than perfection.
Stéphane Lambiel goes on to say:
You’re out there, the spotlights are on you – it’s a big, big pressure. But it’s beautiful. I love it, and I love the process – and the skaters should own the process.
Here’s to that.
This is a surprisingly difficult letter. I struggled. Wikipedia’s List of fictional countries and List of fictional towns in literature both look hopeful, but a closer inspection of the N sections reveals that most of the locations either appear in a medium that I’m not including, or don’t pretend to exist in the world as we know it.
The exception is Norland, in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which has little identifying detail beyond a sufficiently substantial submarine division to be a credible threat in the early 1920s. Even Thomas Hardy’s Wessex can only come up with Narrowbourne, in a short story I haven’t read. Novel-length works featuring settlements beginning with N? The internet fails me.
Why? New and North between them ought to yield plenty of plausible towns. I wonder whether calling anything fictional ‘New’ is a bit too much of a lampshade for something that’s meant to be set in the world as we know it. Perhaps it draws attention to the fact that the place has existed mere months, or, at the outside, decades, in the author’s head. (Or, conversely, one or more fictional Newports is slipping past me because I’ve mixed them up with the real ones.)
However, my father was able to point me at North Bromwich, and so it’s back to the fictional West Midlands, perhaps a little bit further west of where we were last time. He has a lovely set of blue-and-gold Francis Brett Young hardbacks, which no doubt I’ll read my way through at some point, but in the meantime Project Gutenberg came up with a couple. Of these, I’m reliably informed that The Young Physician spends the most time in North Bromwich, so off I went.
In fact, most of the first half of the book finds our hero, Edwin, at school in Sussex, with occasional visits home. And there’s a lovely train journey to get him there, which I can’t resist including at length, even though the Home Counties and Victoria and Paddington stations and Reading and Oxford are real enough. I’m going to say that it’s the careful positioning of the fictional place with reference to the real ones that makes it work:
By this time the region of downs had been left far behind. They were gliding, more smoothly, it seemed, through the heavily-wooded park country of the home counties. Stations became more frequent, and the train began to fill with business people hurrying to London for their morning’s work. They settled themselves in their carriages as though they were confident that their seats had been reserved for them. They were all rather carefully, rather shabbily dressed: the cuffs of their coats were shiny, and the cuffs of their shirts fringed, and one of them, a gentleman with a top-hat half-covered by a mourning-band, wore cuff-covers of white paper. They all read their morning papers and rarely spoke; but when they did speak to each other they used an almost formal respect in their addresses which implied that they were all respectable, God-fearing people with responsibilities and semi-detached houses. Edwin they ignored—not so much as a wilful intrusion as an unfortunate accident. He began to feel ashamed that, by starting from the terminus, he had occupied a corner seat to which the gentleman with the paper cuffs had an inalienable right.
In a little while the villas from which this population had emerged began to creep closer to the track, and by the seventh station their backs were crowding close to the embankment with long, narrow gardens in which the crimson rambler rose seemed to have established itself like a weed. The houses, too, or rather the backs of them, grew more uniform, being all built with bricks of an unhealthy yellow or putty colour. Soon there were no more buildings semi-detached. The endless rows seemed to be suffering some process of squeezing or constriction that made them coalesce and edged them closer and closer to the railway line. Soon the gardens grew so small that there was no room in them for green things, only for a patch of black earth occupied by lean cats, and posts connected by untidy pieces of rope on which torn laundry was hung out to collect the smuts or flap drearily in a night of drizzle. Then the gardens went altogether; and the beautiful and natural love of green things showed itself in sodden window-boxes full of languishing geranium cuttings or mignonette. The very atmosphere seemed to have been subjected to the increasing squeeze; for the mild air of the downs had here a yellow tinge as though it were being curdled. To complete the process the train plunged, at last, into a sulphurous tunnel, emerging amid acrid fumes in a sort of underground vault where the door was opened by a ticket-collector with a red tie, tired already, who shouted “Tickets, please.”
None of the respectable suburban gentlemen took any notice of him, for by purchasing season tickets they had rendered themselves immune from his attentions; but he glared at Edwin, and Edwin passed him his ticket, which was handed on as if it were a curiosity and a rather vulgar possession by the gentlemen on his side of the compartment. The door was slammed. The man with the top-hat placed it carefully on his head and adjusted the paper cuffs. Others folded their morning papers and put them in their pockets. One, apparently recognizing a friend who was sitting opposite to him, for the first time, said “Good-morning,” and the train passed amid thunderous echoes under the arch and into Victoria Station. All his fellow-passengers were adepts at evacuation, and before he knew where he was Edwin was alone in the carriage.
He was very lonely and yet, somehow, a little important. Usually, at term end, he had crossed London with Widdup, whose westward train also started from Paddington. He hailed a hansom, and one that was worthy of its name: a shining chariot, all coach-builders’ varnish, with yellow wheels and polished brass door-handles and clean straw that smelt of the stable on its floor. The cabman was youngish, mahogany-complexioned, and ready to be facetious. He called Edwin “My lord,” and Edwin hardly knew whether to treat him seriously or not. “Geawing to the races, my lord?” he said. The Lord knew Edwin had had enough of races for a bit. He said “Paddington.” “Ascot or Newbury?” said the cabby, climbing to his seat.
It was a great moment. The movement was all so swift and luxurious, the hansom so delicately sprung that it swayed gently with the horse’s motion. The polished lamps on either side were filled with wedding rosettes. Inside on either hand were oblong mirrors in which Edwin could almost see his own profile: a subject of endless curiosity. There was even a little brass receptacle for cigar-ash. A Cunarder of a cab! The cabby whistled “Little Dolly Daydreams” with a ravishing tremolo. The cab, which had jolted a trifle on the setts of the station-yard, passed among a flight of feeding pigeons out of the iron gates into the bowling smoothness of the Palace Road. My word, this was life. . . . …
The streets were so wide and clean, the green fringe of the park so pleasant: through the railings he could see men and women on horseback taking an early ride, enjoying, like him, the coolness of the morning air. He wondered at the great white stucco houses of Park Lane, standing back from the wide pavement with an air of pompous reticence. Before one of them, remnant of a summer dance the night before, a tented portico, striped with red and white, overstretched the pavement. Edwin did not know what kind of people lived in these houses, but in the light of this morning it seemed to him that theirs must be an existence of fabulous happiness, all clean and bright and shining as the morning itself or the rubber-tired hansom, spinning along with its yellow spokes beside the neat park railings.
Once again the resorts of elegance were left behind. The hansom, heaving heavily, was checked on the slope of the gradient descending to the departure platform at Paddington. Opposite the booking-office it stopped, and Edwin was released from this paradisaical loosebox. The cabby, wishing him the best of luck at Goodwood, patted his horse, whom he had christened Jeddah, and climbed up again to his seat whistling divinely. Edwin was disgorged upon the long platform at Paddington that rumbled with the sound of many moving trollies below a faint hiss of escaping steam, and smelt, as he had always remembered it, of sulphur mingled with axle grease and the peculiar odour that hangs about tin milk-cans. He was thankful to be free of it, sitting in the corner of a third-class carriage opposite a stout woman with eyes that looked as if she had been crying all night, and a heavy black veil, whose hat was surmounted by coloured photographs of the Memorial Theatre at Stratford and Brixham Trawlers waiting for a Breeze.
This train ran out of London more easily than the other had entered it. The area of painful constriction seemed more narrow, and in an incredibly short time he found himself gliding along the Thames valley with the ghostly round tower of Windsor Castle on his left.
At Reading, where the sidings of the biscuit factory reminded him of teas which he had “brewed” with Widdup, the woman opposite took out a crumpled paper bag, and began to eat sandwiches.
The sun, meanwhile, was climbing towards the south, and the railway carriage began to reflect the summery atmosphere of the green and pleasant land through which the train was passing. It made golden the dust on the window-pane at Edwin’s elbow and discovered warm colours in the pile of the russet cloth with which the carriage was upholstered.
It was a country of green woods and fields of ripening mowing-grass from which the sound of a machine could sometimes be heard above the rumble of the train. It all seemed extraordinarily peaceful. A cuckoo passed in level flight from one of the hedgerow elms to the dark edge of a wood. In the heart of the wood itself a straight green clearing appeared. It reminded Edwin of the green roads that pierced the woods below Uffdown, and he remembered, poignantly, the walk with his mother in the Easter holidays when they had reached the crown of the hills at sunset… another sight fell upon his eyes and filled him with a new and strange excitement: a small cluster of spires set in a city of pale smoke, and one commanding dome. He held his breath. He knew that it was Oxford.
This, then, was the city of his dreams. Here, in a little while, he would find himself living the new life of leisure and spaciousness and culture which had become his chief ambition. This was his Mecca: “That lovely city with her dreaming spires,” he whispered to himself. It was indeed merciful that the vision of his second dream should come to cheer him when the first became so perilously near extinction.
Yes, you say, but what about North Bromwich? We’ll get there, I promise.
“This rack is intended for light articles only. It must not be used for heavy luggage. This rack is intended for light articles. Only it must not be used for heavy luggage. While there’s life there’s hope. While there’s life there’s hope. While there’s life there’s hope.”
So, in the pitiful whirl of Edwin’s brain, foolish words re-echoed, and in the end the empty phrase seemed to attach itself to the regular beat of the train’s rhythm as the wheels rolled over the joints in the rails. Mesmerised by the formula he only dimly realised that they were now roaring, under a sky far paler and less blue, towards the huge pall of yellowish atmosphere beneath which the black country sweltered.
Soon the prim small gardens told that they were touching the tentacles of a great town. A patch of desert country, scarred with forgotten workings in which water reflected the pale sky, and scattered with heaps of slag. A pair of conical blast furnaces standing side by side and towering above the black factory sheds like temples of some savage religion, as indeed they were. Gloomy canal wharfs, fronting on smoke-blackened walls where leaky steampipes, bound with asbestos, hissed. The exhaust of a single small engine, puffing regular jets of dazzling white steam, seen but not heard. A canal barge painted in garish colours, swimming in yellow water, foul with alkali refuse. A disused factory with a tall chimney on which the words Harris and Co., Brass Founders, was painted in vertical letters which the mesmeric eye must read. Another mile of black desert, pools, and slag heaps, and ragged children flying kites. Everywhere a vast debris of rusty iron, old wheels, corroded boilers, tubes writhen and tangled as if they had been struck by lightning. An asphalt school-yard on a slope, with a tall, gothic school and children screaming their lungs out, but silent to Edwin’s ears. Endless mean streets of dusky brick houses with roofs of purple slate and blue brick footpaths. Dust and an acrid smell as of smoking pit heaps. More houses, and above them, misty, and almost beautiful, the high clock tower of the Art Gallery. A thunderous tunnel. . . . The clamour of the wheels swelled to an uproar. “While there’s life there’s hope. While there’s life there’s hope.” Under the gloom of the great glass roof the train emerged.
The art gallery gives us the clue to the real-world equivalent of North Bromwich. Later we discover that the Mayor has presented it with an ‘unrivalled collection of Madox-Jones cartoons’. I went on a school trip to Birmingham Art Gallery, to look at the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Botanic Gardens, to look at plants, when I was twelve. I don’t remember much about it, except for a rather magnificent Lady of Shalott (not that one, a different one) who was on loan from somewhere else. Since then I’ve only ever been through Birmingham on the train, or changed at New Street. (By the way, the obvious London station to leave from would be Euston; I’m not really sure why Edwin goes via Oxford. Any ideas?)
As Edwin settles back in, and starts shuttling between his home of Halesby and the city of North Bromwich, we get to know it better, from, shall we say, various different points of view:
The city of iron stands upon three hills and its valleys were once watered by two rivers; but since the day when its name was humbly written in Doomsday these pastoral features have disappeared, so that the hills are only known as tramway gradients that testify to the excellence of the Corporation’s power station, and the rivers, running in brick culverts, have been deprived not only of their liberty but even of their natural function of receiving a portion of the city’s gigantic sewage. The original market of North Bromwich has been not so much debauched from without, in the manner of other growing towns, as organised from within by the development of its own inherent powers for evil. It is not a place from which men have wilfully cast out beauty so much as one from which beauty has vanished in spite of man’s pitiful aspirations to preserve it. Indeed, its citizens are objects rather for pity than for reproach, and would be astonished to receive either, for many of them are wealthy, and from their childhood, knowing no better, have believed that wealth is a justification and an apology for every mortal evil from ugliness to original sin.
The narrative is quite concerned with water and where it goes, and what goes into it. Earlier in the book Edwin meets a labourer who’s working on the pipeline getting water from Wales into North Bromwich. (This, too, sparks vague childhood memories for me. I think we had a picnic next a Welsh reservoir somewhere.) Now:
the rain of the Savaddan watershed, which geology had destined for the Wye and later for the Atlantic, must now traverse eighty miles or more of conquered territory, and after being defouled by the domestic usages of North Bromwich, must find its way into the Trent, and so to the German Ocean, as the Romans thoughtlessly labelled the North Sea. “Water,” said the Mayor, who was also known as Sir Joseph Astill, the brewer, “water is one of the necessities of life. It is our duty to the public to see that they have it, and that they have it pure and unadulterated.”
Actually, I think he has a very good point. People need water. This fictional city, overlaid on a real one, needs its fictional plumbing and fictional sewers (not to mention its fictional railway lines) to make it function.
Books mentioned in this post
The Young Physician, Francis Brett Young
Danger!, Arthur Conan Doyle
Life’s Little Ironies, Thomas Hardy
On Friday I thought that I really ought to get going on the EU27 project before Article 50 became irrevocable and the wheels were set in motion for leaving the EU. This was one of (I think) two options that I had readily available, and as a narrative of a European travelling in Europe it seemed particularly appropriate in itself.
This book covers Andersen’s journey south from Copenhagen, via Germany, Italy, Malta and Greece, to Turkey, and back again up the Danube, in the early 1840s. It’s very much a travel narrative, but we don’t forget about Andersen the teller of fairy tales. Occasionally a particular landmark results in a self-contained story embedded within the text; sometimes Andersen remarks that some experience might prompt a story; most often it’s his lovely lucid style that reminds us that this man knew how to tell a story.
Sometimes his experiences felt very familiar to me, and I was pleased when he reached Pressburg (Bratislava in my time) and his boat moored in a stretch of the Danube that I’ve looked out over. And this, though it’s from the very earliest days of rail travel, captures exactly what I like about travelling by train:
Just look out! The nearest fields go by in an arrow-swift stream, grass and plants run into each other – one has the feeling of standing outside the globe and watching it turn. It hurts one’s eyes to look for too long in the same direction; but if you look somewhat farther away, other things do not move any quicker than we see them move when we are driving at a good pace, and farther out on the horizon everything seems to stand still – one has a view and impression of the whole district.
This is precisely how one should travel through flat country. It is as though towns lie close together, now one, now another! The ordinary travellers on the by-roads seem to be stationary. Horses in front of carts lift their feet but seem to put them down again in the same place – and so we have gone by them.
Replace that horse and cart with a car, and that’s still what a train journey feels like. At other times, it’s evident how much things have changed – not least when Andersen talks to some of his fellow travellers about the most famous Dane in history. They agree this is Tycho Brahe; nowadays, of course, it would be Andersen himself. On the practical level, Andersen’s journey is hampered by ten days of quarantine, and in certain places on the Danube his boat has to be pulled upstream by teams of men on the shore. Earlier in the journey, he learns that there’s considerable unrest in Rumelia (now part of Romania), there are rumours that the couriers of the post from Belgrade to Constantinople have been murdered, and he wonders whether to cancel the Danube leg altogether. I got a distinct sense of a Europe that has always been in turmoil at one or more of its edges.
There are inevitably a few ‘man of his time’ moments, including a particularly eyebrow-raising visit to the slave market in Constantinople. Leaving those aside, however, it’s a very enjoyable read, and makes me think that I’d enjoy swapping travellers’ tales with Hans Christian Andersen.
This counts for Denmark in the #EU27project. And it’s my sixth book of the year/in the TBR20.
that’s the way of it: you meet them
over and over, evenings, lunchtimes,
along the road,
at cafés, fountains, benches,
along the road,
you meet them, wish them well,
you move on
or they move on
along the road
you meet them, over and over,
along the road,
along the road,
you move on
or they move on
along the road,
you don’t know
the last time you meet them
was the last time you met them
along the road
‘Well,’ my manager often says after some particularly unfortunate circumstance has come to light, ‘we are where we are.’
This post is going to be less about where we are (goodness knows we could argue about that for the next decade and more) and more about where I’m going to go from here. If you’d like to join me, I’d be glad of the company, but this is primarily a personal response.
I’m operating under two assumptions. Firstly, that life is going to get generally worse for people under the current government and outside the European Union. Secondly, that the referendum was not won on truths, or lies, or facts, but values.
If I’m wrong about either of those… well, it doesn’t actually make much difference. If life in fact gets better for more people, then I’ll be delighted, and the referendum is done, if not done with.
So what do I do with that?
I intend to work – to continue working – to make life better for as many people as I possibly can. At the moment I think that what that looks like is to continue turning up to my day job in trade union education, where we work to equip people with the skills, the knowledge, the confidence that the education system failed to give them. I think it looks like campaigning to rejoin the European Union. I think it looks like working damned hard to protect our rights in the meantime. In any case, I commit to responding to suffering with kindness rather than cruelty (and I think that means never, never, saying ‘I told you so,’ no matter how tempting that might be). I commit to operating from hope.
And I intend to talk more about my values. I believe in openness, open-mindedness, justice, kindness, equality, fulfillment, respect, redemption, transformation, hope, love. I think that I need to talk more about why I believe in those things, and what that means for me.
I find myself without a snappy line to finish this post off, and I suppose that isn’t really surprising. Because I don’t really know what happens next. I don’t know what the end looks like. All I can do is set a course forward.