Tag Archives: storytelling

Why I love Victorian paintings

I grew up with this picture:

The Travelling Companions

On Saturday mornings, while my sister was at youth orchestra, my father and I would often have a quick scour round the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It was the galleries devoted to Victorian painting that I always loved the best and I was lucky because Birmingham had one of the best collections in the world. For me it was magical.

I loved those big necked Rosetti women with their flaming hair and pouty lips, (and possibly thyroid problems.) I loved  ”Christ in the Carpenter’s shop in Nazareth” by Holman Hunt and I loved Ford Maddox Ford’s “Work”, where the figure of a man dressed in women’s clothes slinks down the side of the composition to hide from the police. I loved the “Death of Chatterton”, with the chalk -faced poet stretched out on the couch beneath his attic window, looking so beautiful and romantic in death and I loved “The Last of England”, with the baby’s hand reaching out from under the mother’s wraps as the parents look mournfully out, surrounded by cabbages for the long voyage to goodness knows where. A terrible, sad tale indeed, but I never tired of looking at it and wondering.

The Last of England

I realise now these pictures turned me into a storyteller. They are seared in my brain. I can recite their contents like poems learnt off by heart. And those two sisters in grey silk by Egg, one asleep, one with her book – how I wondered who they were and where they were going. Were they sisters? Did they mind being dressed the same? What is she reading? Of what is the other one dreaming? The same questions still throw themselves at me and I long to answer them. Maude and Florence? Lucy and Susan? Mary and Kate? Who are you and what is your story? Do you love the same man? Does your mother favour one of you over the other? Have you enough money to last you through the winter in Rome?

Now I look for the people in the stories I write in Victorian paintings. Sometimes I even find them.

May I introduce to you Felix Carswell, the young hero of The Butchered Man?  I found him staring out at me in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I hope he approves of my biography of him.

The Butchered Man – buy here on Kindle, Smashwords and now in paperback

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Why you should never throw away receipts.

No, I’m not talking about taking stuff back or “just in case” scenarios connected with everyday life. I’m thinking of future immortality in the historical record. As a novelist and social historian the receipts and printed debris of the past are like magic carpets. And for someone else today’s petrol station receipt or fast food flier will act the same way. Think before you throw it away.

If you do throw it away perhaps consider not throwing it away very well. Don’t carefully recycle it but perhaps sweep it away into a drawer in order to get the surface cleared. Chances are it may get lost under the drawer liner (hopefully made from old newspaper) and only be rediscovered when someone buys your old chest of drawers and clears it out for restoration. They might be amused or even touched by what they found.

We bought a Scotch Chest for £35 in Jedburgh about 20 years ago. A Scotch chest is a particular style of everyday furniture of the 19th century, characterised by the big deep drawer in the centre, used for keeping hats. (I keep A4 files in mine).

Now our chest is very similar to this one and you will note that there is a broad strip above where the drawers start. This turns out to be a long, shallow drawer, not immediately obvious to the eye. Certainly we didn’t realise it was there until we got it home and found it.  In our case it was still full of stuff. There were photographs, a fake pearl necklace, a ration book and postcards. All completely overlooked and forgotten about.The impression they made on us was rather emotional – surely these things would be missed by someone? We asked the shop if they knew where the chest had come from but they had no idea so we could not send them back to the family. So we kept them, most of them still in the drawer where a slick of our own stuff has been added to them for the future to discover.  One day someone will be quite confused.

I was entranced to read a piece about the restoration of an old house where children had apparently pushed all sorts of interesting things through the gaps in the floorboards, playing cards and ribbons and so forth. I was delighted then when  the floorboards came up for renovation in our flat and the electrician found a very old cigarette packet and a copy of a 1888 evangelical tract, addressed to the working man. I can imagine our long vanished workman had having that pressed into his hands by some earnest urban missionary in Victorian Edinburgh, only for him to abandon it under the boards of the house he was working on. It was obviously not worth taking home…

So don’t throw away your receipts. They are the ghosts of the future.

Anyone else found anything accidentally like this? I’d love to know.

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You can be a successful woman, but you’ll be miserable…

Someone at BBC drama is sending out a sinister message to women, a message worthy of the Daily Mail. Over the last few years we have had a slew of biographical dramas of iconic women of the twentieth century. We’ve had Fanny Craddock, Margot Fonteyn, Barbara Cartland, Enid Blyton and Gracie Fields, and just recently Hattie Jacques.

Now from a commissioning point of view what is not to like? These are big names in twentieth century British culture; they allow the BBC to do what they are very good at – period drama and they practically sell themselves. There is the added bonus that they can attract headline talent to play the parts of these famous and inspiring women. So we have Helena Bonham Carter, Ruth Jones, Jane Horrocks and co all lined up to recreate the fascinating story of the woman behind the legend. Perfect! So kick off your shoes, pour a glass of Vigonier and pass the designer crisps. A relaxing, sumptuous evening of bio-pic-ery awaits.

Or so I thought, as I settled down to watch them.

But I was left not thinking “Gosh, what a fantastic woman, what a great achievement,” but “oh dear, does that mean if I am successful I have to be a monster and/or utterly miserable. Will I die alone, deserted by all? Will my children hate me?” It began to feel as if there had been a policy decision to make films about successful women to show how they ruined their personal lives to pay for that success.

Of course that’s nonsense. What this was about was the quest for conflict – that essential power-tool of successful drama. If your iconic female character is a perfect ‘yes’ woman all the way, baking cakes, bearing children and contributing significantly to British popular culture, while still adoring her husband, then there is no conflict, and there is no drama. No-one will watch it, so there has to be conflict, there have to be character flaws to create compelling stories. And all these dramas were compelling, and very entertaining as a result. Grim but entertaining.

But then we get to the queasy bit. These dramas were purporting to be more than dramas: they were biographical explorations. That implies a different contract with the audience. When real people are involved then surely there is a responsibility to offer some kind of balance? There is the implication of debate, but this idea sits very ill with the concept of drama.

The temptation to take a person’s life and make it into a story is huge. It’s a ready made plot for a start, but it has to be handled with great care. The play about Hattie Jacques was a very good example of this, because all we saw was the small period of her life, about 5 years worth, when she went of the rails a bit and had an affair with a right scoundrel which ended in her divorcing poor John le Mesurier. We did not see how she became so successful or beloved. It boiled down to “famous actress has a midlife fling and pays dearly for her sins.” I am quite sure that the BBC commissioners did not mean these stories to have such a misogynistic, moralising tone, but unfortunately that is the impression that is so often given.

Iconic males have fared better. The recent offering about Morecambe and Wise managed to be fair, entertaining and still retain the magic of the subject. Enid Blyton and Hattie Jacques were crushed by their bio-pics, while Eric and Ernie were enhanced. A skillful piece of work. One might also point to The King’s Speech as another very successful bit of bio-pic-ery which has enhanced the reputation of George VI rather than destroyed it. It’s notable as well that both these triumphant narratives had in them strong, supportive women working behind the scenes.

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Writer or Storyteller?

It is socially awkward being a writer at parties. “What do you do?” you will, of course, be asked. Do you tell the truth?

“Well, I sit around all day, drink too much coffee and sometimes write a few paragraphs. I procrastinate a lot, but mostly I fantasise about imaginary people at great length.” No, of course not. Instead you mumble something about “being a writer” and then move on swiftly to asking “and you?” to avoid all the laborious explanations of why your books are not for sale in WH Smith.Inevitably you discover that your questioner does something worthy or high profile or well paid (or all three at once) and the next ten minutes can be happily spent getting the inside information on that. You call it research and yet again you resign yourself to never being able to sound so admirable or successful.

But with the Christmas cocktail party season approaching I am wondering about taking a different tack. It is about time I had a rebrand. I might try saying I am storyteller and see what sort of reaction that gets.

Why? To me saying you are a storyteller sounds so much more life affirming than saying your are a writer. It stresses entertainment and performance. It is a word that implies communication. Writer is a sad old sounding word, with built in angst in it.It makes you think of dragging a scratchy nib laboriously across a page in an unheated garret. Storyteller sounds bouncy and fun. It conjures up the fireside and the mead cup. I think that’s what you need at a Christmas party.

There are other reasons. When you read the reviews on Amazon, reviews by ordinary folk, it becomes clear that, nine times out of ten, what they are after when they pick up a novel is a great story. This is an ancient, primitive desire. The story is what helps makes us make sense of everything. There has been research done to show that there is an evolutionary advantage to storytelling. Now that is a profession to which I’d like to belong.

Another problem for me it that the word “writer” stresses the means of communication rather that the contents of the message. I love words and I love good writing, of course I do. I strive to write as well as I can but I know I am clumsy and slipshod and lazy with my tools. I am frequently deeply frustrated by them. It is the effect of words that interests me, not the words for their own sake. Often I wish I could send my ideas straight to a movie screen or into paintings. Words often seem unequal to the task I want them to perform. I want soundtrack, I want texture, I want the smell of things and the taste. I want my readers to experience everything. Oh heavens, I think I want to create a holodeck for them, just like the one they had on Star Trek, the Next Generation.

To say “I am writing” vastly understates the task I am setting myself. I am not just stringing symbols together on a piece of paper. I am striving to make an imaginary world credible and tangible to the reader. There are characters to create and develop; there are settings to realise and convey and all of this must be then carefully crafted to produce a logical, satisfying narrative in which the events pile up and up, each building on the other in order to create something that is both emtionally and intellectually satisfying. I write so that I can tell stories. Heck, I’d use a box of wax crayons if that did the job more efficiently than words!

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David Hockney and the positive feedback loop

The artist David Hockney has succumbed to the pleasures of digital art. He has acquired an iPad and has been using it to draw on it and then distributes them. Watching the little snippet of an interview with him on the BBC, you can sense what he is enjoying the process of creation, but equally enjoying the process of feedback. He likes knowing that he has shared his work, and that other people are enjoying what he has created, and then when the respond, he is even more pleased. This puts him in a positive feedback loop and encourages him to do more

Still life painted on David Hockney's iPad

All artists need to find themselves such feedback loops.

Writing long fiction is traditionally a solitary activity. In fact, so solitary that you sometimes feel as if you are sitting in the corner of some vast, empty space – perhaps a concrete barn perched on the most westerly cliffs on a wind swept island. There you stay, tapping away at a keyboard or scribbling on paper, working at creating a cohesive imaginary world, word by word, sentence by sentence and for what? As you labour you must force yourself to imagine a reader, who may in the distant future, by some small series of accidents, happen to discover your novel and actually decide to read it. If they do read the book you will never hear what they thought of it, and you begin to wonder why you did any of it in the first place. Storytelling is all about communication and how can you know if you have communicated successfully if you never hear from your readers?

I have published five novels, which did not sell wonderfully but did do well in the public library system. I was able to deduce from the Public Lending Right figures and the money that came with them that about 60,000 people read my novels in one year. But I never heard from any of them and my confidence suffered as a result. I did treasure the feedback I got from my family and friends. It felt very precious to me because there was so little of it. Writing in a void is not much fun. Yes the work itself is rewarding, but more wonderful still is when you hear from someone that they loved your story and best of all that they needed a box of tissues by the end of it.

So when I started blogging in earnest, here, and in fictional form with my web serial, here, I was surprised and delighted to get direct feedback from my readers. There aren’t many of you yet, but it is still a bit of a revelation to me. I am beginning to feel the pleasure of actually reaching an audience, and knowing there are people out there who read my work and tell me what they think. Thanks to the internet, writing becomes less solitary and more like performance. The benefit performers feel – that high they suck up from an appreciative audience, is suddenly accessible to writers. I have certainly found myself a positive feedback loop and I am very grateful to those folk who have made it possible.

Arguments rage whether authors ought to be forced out to do publicity and relate to their readership. Some feel that that it is the job of their publishers and publicists to make those connections and that the writer ought to be left alone to write, believing it is the solitary confinement that creates the great work (see here). I think this is too harsh a view for most of us scribes. We need to feel loved and encouraged in our work. And if it is good enough for David Hockney, it is good enough for me.

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