Diana Athill in the 1930sRead More
When I’m in London I often work at the British Library. I pretend it is my club and arrange to meet people there for lunch or coffee or afternoon tea. If they’re unfamiliar with its layout, I wait for them just inside the front doors and sit on this brass bench:
Although it makes for a chilly bottom, there is something irresistible for me about sitting inside a book. Life imitating art. Living my own metaphor.
I did much of the research for my latest novel The Fourth Shore at the British Library. Unlike other libraries, you cannot take the books out. You have to read them in situ, which concentrates the mind. Before you can enter one of the reading rooms you have to demonstrate a legitimate research interest and become a registered library user. You are free to sit and work in the public areas of the library and many people do, hundreds of places filled daily. But there is something about showing your pass and being granted access to a reading room – having divested yourself in advance of all extraneous possessions, handbags, umbrellas and pocket contents stowed in a locker, laptop and pencil clearly displayed in one of the clear plastic bags provided – something that says I’m not here to muck about. I am here to work.
The first time I attempted to enter one of the reading rooms, I was turned away. My credentials were bonafide, my transparent bag of necessaries regulation issue, no sneaky pen was hidden about my person, but I had not quite managed to meet all of the requirements. I was still wearing my coat and outdoor apparel is not not allowed in the reading rooms, lest a collection item be hidden amongst its folds. When I presented myself again after a trip to the cloakroom, chastened and coatless, the guardian at the door said, ‘If Madam is cold,we can provide a shawl,’ and then he ushered me in.
The whole huge, high-ceilinged room is full of other people also there to work and to find out more about whatever it is that interests them. Some have requested so many volumes that these have to be wheeled to their desks on trolleys. It is as if their brains have expanded just by being there and they are able to consult a hundred books at once.
I knew before I started using the service that there were millions of books available in the British Library, but still I was stunned to discover that I could access esoteric Italian titles from a hundred years ago, like this one – a memoir by an Italian pilot of the 1920s complete with the author’s own photographs taken from the air.
I understand that such a discovery would not set everyone’s heart aflutter, but it does mine.
So it is a very conducive place for me to study and explore ideas and and then, once an hour, I emerge from the hush of the reading room to stretch my legs and I roam. I go up and down stairs, in and out of lifts, along galleries. I wander down to the basement to be endlessly entranced by a trompe l’oeil picture, Paradoxymoron, showing a set of library book stacks, which appear to move as the viewer's eyes move. I climb a side staircase to look at the portrait of Hilary Mantel at the top and be encouraged in my efforts by her calm presence.
There are many amazing facts and statistics about the British Library, including:
· It is the largest public building built in the United Kingdom in the 20th century.
· It goes deep – five of the fourteen floors are underground.
· If you saw 5 items each day, it would take you over 80,000 years to see the whole of the collection.
· Some books are kept up north. Robots fetch them for you and then send them on request by a daily shuttle service from Yorkshire.
The British Library is a sanctuary in the hectic heart of London. It is more lovely inside than out. It hosts talks and exhibitions, is packed with maps, manuscripts, ancient documents, stamps and extraordinary wonders as well as books and still more books, a central tower of them inside a glass case, a shaft of books housing something called the King’s library.
I never have availed myself of the shawl service, but I love knowing it exists. It sums up something essential about working at the British Library: there are rules, they must be obeyed, but once you’re in, you’re royalty. If needs be, you will be brought shawls.
I am really looking forward to going to Budleigh Salterton literary festival in a fortnight's time. In the morning I’m doing a talk at 10am at the Temple Church and in the afternoon I’m teaching a prose fiction workshop at the Playhouse.
On summer evenings this year the beach was busy but not over-busy with people swimming, kayaking, cooking and fishing. The mackerel evidently queue up to be caught.
There are many reasons to love Budleigh:
It rarely gets overcrowded (perhaps because it has a pebbly rather than a sandy beach)
The pebbles themselves - beautiful, sea-smoothed, rounded and perfect
In what might be a trick of the light and the contours of the sloping beach, people standing or sitting amid the undulations of those pebbles acquire an extra intensity of presence and appear to be etched against the sea and sky
On the river Otter, which meets the sea at the far end of the beach, lovely bird-filled little islands and half-islands have formed
The best ice-cream in the southwest is to be found here
The cliff is proper Devon-earth red
The beach shelves down in such a way that you don’t have to be brave putting your sensitive body parts into the cold English sea because the lay of the land does it for you; one minute you’re tentatively dipping your toes and the next you’re up to your shoulders and it’s too late to whimper
In the town a stream runs alongside the road so that some of the houses have to be entered via tiny bridges
The colourful beach huts are very much used; people sit outside them, reading the newspaper, brewing tea, eating a rich tea biscuit or two, wringing every bit of quiet delight from simple pleasures.
One time this summer I cooked these stupendous prawn and herb salt kebabs (a la Jamie) using bay leaves and rosemary from my garden. And halloumi skewers too.
I love it too because it is a place that, while being quintessentially Devon, seems to me to evoke other places, acting as a sort of portal in my imagination. For example there is a walk on the other side of the river, between the Otter Estuary nature reserve and farmland and something there, the layout of the fields, the unassuming farmhouse, the way that the vegetables grow right up to the path, unfenced, reminds me of rural France.
Then there is the iconic line of trees on the cliff-top. I don’t know if it’s the long shadows when the sun is low in the sky, a trick of the light there, the luminosity of the place where the river Otter enters the sea, Otterton ledge it’s called, the red rock of the cliff or a combination of all these but, fanciful though it sounds, it always puts me in mind of West Africa.
But I also love Budleigh because it’s the home of this wonderful jewel of a literary festival of which Hilary Mantel is the president. And Hilary Mantel is my literary hero. Since long before the Cromwell books, I have sought inspiration in her writing. The opening scenes of Beyond Black, for example, are a lesson in how to paint a picture with words and how to pull the reader instantly into the world of the book. I adore too the quirky humour and unexpected twists of Fluud. But the book that I have read so much it inhabits my mental landscape is An Experiment in Love. When I was writing my first (unfinished!) novel I turned time and time again to examine its sentences and to see how it fitted together, to try and discern the seams and the stitching, asking myself how she did it. How did she pull it off? How did she turn that paragraph on a sixpence? How did she tell us without ever spelling it out what this character was thinking and feeling and what the doubts were, what the complexities. How is it so richly layered?
I’ve heard Hilary Mantel speak a few times and she is never anything other than enlightening. I’m so glad that she is there keeping the bar that high.
Recently a friend of mine, a landscape gardener, introduced me to his composting theory of creativity, which, he claimed, provides a rationale for the delayed artistic flowering that some among us experience. According to the theory, we have been laying it down, layer upon layer of life experience over the years and decades so that now, when we lift the compost out, it is rich and fertile and makes things grow. It is also nigh-on inexhaustible (so long as we remain alive and compos[t] mentis). We only need to keep topping it up and feeding the mixture – with more life experience, conviviality, reading & thinking, interaction with others, engagement with the world, frequent trips and travel, parties, outings and the like.
I was put in mind of the composting theory when I read of the death of Hotel du Lac author Anita Brookner at the age of 87, because Dr Brookner’s first novel was published when she was 53 years old and it was her third that bagged her that prize of prizes, the Booker. And, despite starting late with the novel-writing, she managed to produce twenty in all. By her own admission, her prolific output was partly due to novel-writing having replaced a life which was sad and miserable and coloured by unsatisfactory love affairs with unsuitable men, so the topping up theory might seem not to apply. But then top-ups do not have to be either grandiose or happy in order to enrich the compost. They can be small and comfortable like trips to the theatre, reading the newspaper and a cup of earl grey tea drunk from a bone china cup. They can be big and painful. A bit of heartache, as long as it’s mulched down, improves the growing mixture .
There are all sorts of reasons that might prevent a person from getting on with their artistic endeavour until they have reached a certain age. There might be a need to earn a living, pay the mortgage, bring up the children. There may be a level of stress that does not allow the spacious quality necessary for creativity. There might too be a failure to grasp that it is a perfectly legitimate use of one’s time. It doesn’t always occur to a person that, say, writing a novel is a thing a grownup, the particular sort of grownup that they are, is genuinely allowed to do. Women more than men I think struggle to recognise themselves thus.
It is also sometimes the case that the late blooming flower was only ever capable of unfurling its petals once all the layers of compost had been laid down.
Some years ago David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago, decided to examine the assumption that genius necessarily equates with precocity. He wrote a study Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity in which he defines the key difference between ‘prodigies’ and ‘late bloomers’ as being their creative approach. Basically, according to his theory of artistic creativity, artists are divided into these two broad groups: conceptualists, who make radical innovations in their field at a very early age; and experimentalists, whose innovations develop slowly over a long period of experimentation and refinement.
The imprecision of the experimentalists means that they proceed in a 'tentative and incremental' way. Compost!
One way in to a piece of writing is via solid objects. They help to tether the prose and stop it from flying off too fancifully.
Objects have their own story too which can help move the narrative along. If you introduce a solid object, you can describe it, ask its provenance, who made it, who bought it, how many owners has it had, what its function might be, whether it is still used for that original function or has it been appropriated for some other purpose? Is it old or new? What does it feel like? To whom is it precious?
The apartment of Chiara Ravello, the main character in Early One Morning, is full of extraordinary objects. She is a bit of a hoarder, a collector. She has different phases but when we first meet her she is in her glass phase and has just found a bargain, a red Murano glass bowl.
What a delightful relief it can be from the urgent business of making things up to while away a happy hour or two deepening your knowledge and understanding of a character’s passing fad. In this case I became a temporary ‘expert’ on the glassware that has been made for centuries on the Venetian island of Murano. I learnt about its history and the techniques of its manufacture, about specialties like crystalline glass and aventurine, the glass with threads of copper or gold within.
I acquired a short-lived but particular fascination for the sommerso (‘submerged’ or ‘sunken’) glass technique developed during the late 1930s. A piece of sommerso glass is layered with the inner stratum being one colour and the outer one either another colour, or clear, thus endowing the vase or bowl with a different quality of depth.
Then there is the bullicante effect achieved by blowing glass into a metallic mould containing rows of tiny spikes which impress tiny hollows on the surface. The object is then dipped back into the melting pot, where it is covered by another layer of glass that traps minute bubbles in the hollows, creating a bubble pattern.
The red glass bowl that Chiara buys reminds her of a lamp from her childhood and also of the sanctuary light that is kept lit in a Catholic church to demonstrate that God is present. It is an important and evocative object for her and within the narrative.
I was in Italy last month for the publication of Una Mattina di Ottobre and my publishers, Nord, gave me a gift:
What an extraordinary thing. My very own red glass bowl. You might think it's as if the bowl had leapt out of the pages of my book and onto my shelf. But that’s not what happened. My bowl is different from Chiara’s. She acquired hers cheap because it is flawed. Mine, however, is perfect.
I am working on my third novel and place, as ever, will play a big part. I can’t seem to move my characters about until I know what they can smell and touch and taste, what they can see from their window, what is around the corner from their home and what the corner itself is made of, whether stucco or stone, mud or brick.Read More
There are two walnut sauces referenced in Early One Morning, either of which would make a fabulous Christmas Eve meal or alternative to some of the other festive fare on offer at this time of year.Read More
All this talking about Italian food has reminded me of a short story I wrote, originally published in Riptide Vol. 5, (edited by Jane Feaver), about a married couple who return to northern Italy, to the place where they had their honeymoon. Italian food and other sensory pleasures feature.Read More
Food was always an important part of the Early One Morning story, not least because my love of Italy is the fundamental inspiration for the novel and you can’t talk about Italy without mentioning food.Read More