Where the People Are

This Week’s Bit of String: Three kids and a saw

Visiting my parents’ New Hampshire town several summers ago, my husband and I wandered down the pre-re-vitalised Main Street. In front of a once fine, colonial-style house now leaning and peeling, a little boy stood barefoot on the drive, twirling a rusted coping saw. Two small girls watched from the weedy front lawn, their expressions grave.

A scrawny mum in a nightdress shouted at them to get inside and watch TV. My husband and I exchanged looks. Were these the Small Town Values politicians always banged on about?

Trees at dawn, towering over traffic lights
The Leafy Suburbs.

What bothers me about the Small Town Values spiel isn’t that it writes off the city as immoral; morality is irrelevant. (How dull would our writing be if everyone were moral?) It’s that it abets the impression that small towns are idyllic places where nothing bad ever happens. It minimises the challenges faced by those living there.

It’s the same on this side of the ocean. I worked in one of the biggest secondary schools in a large county, but our school was populous mainly because it drew on twenty-something ‘feeder’ primary schools, some from very small towns. Government inspectors seemed dismissive of our students’ issues because we were based in ‘the leafy suburbs.’

However, our area is also classed as one of ‘rural deprivation,’ with an exceptionally high incidence of substance abuse and mental disabilities. These places are still riddled with real people, living hard stories.

Finding the Ideas

In my writing, I like setting longer projects in small towns, or at least not very big cities. Yes, my life experience has been gained there, but also it’s easier to tie threads together. You get added layers when your characters already know each other, or at least pass each other by with some regularity.

Blackboard outside pub reading: Vacancy, Customers Required...
Also the Leafy Suburbs.

For shorter projects, though, the city is magic. Every person is a puzzle, and the way they brush by creates a range of potential interaction. It’s easy to find surprising juxtapositions: A mobile lingerie fitting shop setting up next to some well-jacketed, buttoned-up Jehovah’s witnesses and their pamphlets. A vegan Indian food stall next to one selling leather goods. Everyone is a stranger and capable of surprise; a twist here can easily be summed up in a sentence or a symbol.

I’m currently reading Flaneuse, Lauren Elkin’s tribute to women who don’t just explore the city, but absorb it. I picked this book up inspired by a recent Women Writers Network Twitter chat (see other great recommendations here) about women writing the city. Our reasons for celebrating this are best summed up by Sarah Waters in The Paying Guests. “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she walked, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by the friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in these tingling moments–these moments when, paradoxically, she was at her most anonymous.”

It’s possible that the more our selves diminish, the more our surroundings gain stature, free to sow new ideas.

With their relentless array of sights and sounds, urban areas are perfect for very short, or “flash” fiction. A flash piece is a kernel of story, minute and representative of possibility. The best ones are so tightly packed, you can’t unfurl them without damage. All you can do is peer at the coiled layers from the outside, maybe roll it on your tongue to taste the bitter or the sweet, never daring to crunch.

Bristol Flash Walk

I recently had a piece featured in Bristol’s Flash Walk, an event with flash fiction stories read at different points between the Harbour and Bedminster. All provided fascinating, quick glances into city encounters—past, actual, or merely longed-for. We strained over traffic and alarms and rivers and inquisitive children to hear each story, and this added to the excitement.

Bristol Harbour reading
Actor Christopher Ryan reads “The Prodigal” in the iconic Bristol Harbour, with Colston Tower in the background.

My contribution hovered dangerously near the maximum word count of 400 and was called “The Prodigal,” about the famous slave trader/ Bristol benefactor Colston. The opening line launches right in: “When Edward Colston revisited the city of his birth some three hundred and eighty years later, he saw his name etched blood-red across the sky.

After the reading, which met with great laughter and applause at the right places, my husband asked me, “So where did Colston appear from? The afterlife?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You don’t have to, with flash fiction.” I could be totally wrong about this. But to me, that’s what suits flash fiction to city writing. You don’t have to look too deeply because something else comes along. I don’t know if I could finish a long project based in a city; I’d become distracted, I’d sink beneath the weight of all the what-ifs.

Escape to the Country

I tend to leave a city with a handful of kernels as well as some possible story-seeds. If I transplant a person or scenario from a more populous area to a smaller town or to a rural spot, it has room to grow. I can also gain a little control over other affecting factors and narrow down plot ideas.

Tail to tail, the swans fortify their nest.
“No luck hatching them swans, then?”

When I polled Twitter, more than half respondents (58%) said countryside wanders were better than city ones for gathering ideas. I love the countryside, but I often need an idea already germinating in my mind for these hikes to be fruitful in terms of story development.

I just can’t invent things without people to base them on. Though it’s lovely walking with no one else around, I find myself assigning human psychology to my surroundings anyway. The other day on a canal walk, I wondered if the young swan families at different points along the journey receive news of each other. Does Mrs. Stratford Park Swan know she’s the last one waiting for her eggs to hatch? Do Mr. and Mrs. Dudbridge Swan know the Eastington cygnets are only just learning to dive, and that the group has dwindled to 4? And do any of them know the whereabouts of the missing Ebley Swans? I imagined cunning mallards passing these tidbits on. Possibly trading gossip for a prime beakful of algae.

I don’t know if this shows a lack of imagination in me, or a surplus of projection. But this is how I tend to work: tugging bits of string out from the city and puttering with them in as close to the wilderness as I can find. Or, in my daily smaller-town life, suddenly realising that the customer or bus passenger I keep seeing is a massive multicoloured spool of thread just waiting for my mind to get tangled in.

Seven Wanders of the Year

As important as it is to feed our writerly brains with books, fresh air and change of scenery are equally essential. Quite a few writers find that, right? I love a good hike to jostle my ideas around. Also to burn off some of the rubbish I eat when I’m stressed about writing (or, more likely, the tedious housework and the office craziness).

Here are my top expeditions of 2017, including my own humble phone photos.

Brighton  It’s all here: seascapes, street art, interesting old buildings. We visited during Storm Brian this year, so the wind and waves were incredible. I can’t resist getting close to the sea, and I did get soaked. (Are there people who can? Who stand on the edge of cliffs and don’t ponder, just for a second, what it would be like to dive in?)

Brighton old pier, sunlight shining through stormclouds
Old Brighton Pier
Mural of girl with flowers and butterflies
Mural in a Brighton parking garage
Waves breaking on Brighton Harbour
Go for it, Storm Brian!

Lynmouth  Another seaside town. We love this one for its little homes clinging to the coastal hills, and for the history. I’m intrigued by the stories of the deadly 1952 flood, and whenever we go I study the pictures of before and after: what bits were washed away, and what held on. The boulders by the shore still hide artefacts from the flood, and we always visit painter Maurice Bishop’s studio as well, to bring something home with us. Lynmouth town and Lyn River

 

Maurice Bishop moonlit seaside painting, post-war spoon
Souvenir painting, plus a spoon I found at Lynmouth with George VI’s initials on.

Bristol/ Window Wanderland  Possibly even more so than Brighton, Bristol is great for street art, being the original open air gallery of Banksy’s work. This year I encountered a heart-rending memorial mural to victims of the slave trade, the funds from which lined the pockets of Bristolian merchants and helped the city gain prominence and wealth.

Mural depicting a slave ship and the people victimised by the trade
By the River Avon, memorial to victims of the slave trade
Bristol Harbour: multi-coloured terraced houses, Lloyds Bank crescent, old sailing ship
Bristol Harbour

On a trip to the Bishopston area of North Bristol, very early in 2017, we found marvels in the more workaday bits of the city as well. A new movement called Window Wanderland encourages communities to choose a wintry weekend for decorating home windows with lovely displays for us all to wander round and look at. Bishopston families celebrated favourite cultural phenomena and beliefs, or showcased local events. Check out the Window Wanderland website to see if there are any happening near you!

Coloured papercuts showing hot air balloons and spectators
Three-storey display dedicated to Bristol Balloon Fiesta
Coloured papercuts showing Star Wars characters and action scenes
The Force is strong with this one…

London  This was my first big city, and I practically lived there for a couple months as a student. I love the juxtapositions of different races, cultures, and time periods. Walking through it with my teenage son on our trip to see Tori Amos in October was a whole new treat.

Bright green parakeets in the trees of Hyde Park
Hyde Park: Spot the parakeets
Plaque honouring literary history
Saturated with history: Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle dined together here…
Giant face sculpture in front of posh townhouses
Sculpture display in Regent Park

Stockholm  Being split between the US and the UK, we don’t get much time (or funds) to explore other countries. But we had a little getaway to Sweden at the end of August, and loved the waterways and old streets, plus the living museums like the Vasamuseet, showcasing an early 17th century warship, and Skansen, a conglomeration of buildings and workshops from different periods in Swedish history.

Stockholm boat with classic buildings in the background
View from Riddar-Holmen, one of the many Stockholm islands
Wheatfield and old church
At Skansen living museum, an old rural church, a wheatfield and a peacock right in the middle of the city

Stroudwater Canal This has been my year of discovering canals. Most Friday afternoons, when work lets us out an hour early, I take a 5-mile hike along the canal from the Wallbridge lock in the centre of Stroud, to just past Blunder Lock in Eastington. I learned to identify the different swan families along the way, and watched their cygnets grow with each passing week until they took flight. The fauna on the bank exploded from one Friday to the next, erupting pink with wildflowers in early June. Sticking to a regular, flat route allowed me to cover a fair bit of ground and also freed my mind develop stories, while at the same time drawing my attention to seasonal changes.

Swan and five young cygnets on the canal
The Eastington swan family
Pink blossoms similar to orchids
Part of the aforementioned pink explosion
Sunset over the restored mill buildings in Ebley
Ebley Mills on a wintry evening
Rusty bare willow branches reflected in the canal with a frosty field beyond.
Lunchtime walk on a frosty day

Mount Cardigan While visiting home at the end of May, I brought my husband up Cardigan, the small local mountain. The trail’s a mile and a half each way, leaping around stones and roots, climbing by rushing waterfalls (at least at that time of year when there’s still snowmelt to contend with), and then scrabbling over steeper rock face toward the top. I loved it, even though it was too foggy to see from the summit. It made me want to climb more, but it turns out that little mountain is taller than the highest peak in all England. Still, how awesome does it feel to say you’ve climbed a mountain?

Rocky, wooded path up the mountain
The trail.
Fiddlehead ferns sprouting along the path
Fit as a fiddlehead.
Mossy, jagged stump
Who’s the king or queen of the castle?
Waterfalls alongside the trail
Impromptu waterfalls–sometimes, that’s the best kind.

Where do you go for your best ideas? Whatever new adventures the new year holds, I hope your mountains will be rewarding.

Art is All Around

This week’s bit of string: Thoughts and images from artists who’ve passed this way already

We’re approaching that time of year when Bill Nighy’s ‘Christ-MAS is all around us’ from Love Actually gets stuck in our heads. Come now, it isn’t just me. But I won’t bother you about Christmas yet, nor even, indeed, about love. Let’s talk about art instead. Art is all around us!

Bristol street art: Colourful twist ties in old city wall window
Bristol’s old city wall, brightened with hundreds of colourful twisty ties.

As someone who left the ability to drive when I emigrated twelve years ago, I do a lot of walking, and I don’t mind it. Even when I’m walking the same route to and from work every day, I enjoy taking pictures from my journey and reflecting on it later, scribbling details in one of my handy-dandy notebooks.

I’ve been motivated in this by a hashtag project my sister Nicole St. James started two years ago. #Everythingyoucanwalkto encourages us to get outside and take pictures. We use our phone lenses to frame what we see, and make it into art. Have a look, here.

What qualifies these photos as art? They just feature things found in nature, or random bits of graffiti like a sticker on a lamppost. How do we identify what art is?

Art Derives from Nature

On her Brainpickings website, Maria Popova posted a nice compilation of quotes defining art. She references Frank Lloyd Wright, who observed that art develops the ‘elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms’ for people to use.

Roses laced with frost
A rose is a rose, but it’s art too.

I agree that the relationship between nature and art is key. Being out in the fresh air, in the colour and grandeur of the landscape, opens our minds more to appreciate art and beauty. So when I’m walking along, provided I’m not stressing too much about something stupid, I am more liable to look around and interpret what I see as beautiful, and capable of use in art.

Art Creates the Unexpected

The other thing that opens my mind to art as I’m out walking is finding something unexpected. A painting on the side of a building, or a baby’s shoe hung in a tree. These give me pause, make me think, question: what’s the story here?

In remarks detailed by a New York Public Library article in the Huffington Post, Leon Botstein called art necessary to ‘discover the imagination.’ He also noted its ‘powerful protection against boredom.’ In order to do so, of course art has to surprise you a little. As for defining it, he said: ‘If it seems to evoke, even inadvertently… it can be a piece of art.’

Yes, those weird pieces of street art, even the most obscure or minimalistic modern art—if they cause emotion, even frustration or confusion, they are art! After all, it’s a frustrating and confusing world. We have to expect art to reflect that, at least occasionally. Look at Kafka, or Beckett, or Joyce. The bizarre, somewhat disjointed narratives they created qualify as literature partly because they awaken us to the same qualities in the real world.

The Unbearable Inconvenience of Feeling

My personal definition of art, plain and simple: It makes you think, and it makes you feel. That includes literature. As writers, we definitely have the power to do those things, if people let us.

Paris graffiti: 'Love me' sticker on a drainpipe
Encountered this ‘Love me’ sticker in Paris. Ceci une pipe? Or a poignant plea from a wayward artist?

Admittedly, thinking and feeling aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. In a passage from my novel Artefacts, a teacher confronts the rather challenging seventh grader, Luke, after Luke covers the toilet conveniences in paper mache and uses the excuse that he’s made art.
‘You can’t use art just to inconvenience people,’ Mr. Tamworth said. ‘Or even solely to shock people, I would argue.’
‘They say it’s supposed to make people feel,’ Luke snapped. ‘That’s pretty damn inconvenient.’

And it is, it is inconvenient, sometimes excruciating, especially when art or literature places another human being’s pain-stricken soul in front of us. Art is all around us, bursting before our eyes, blooming in our minds, and the beauty of it can ache. But we use it to create our own work.

So we cry at movies (including Love Actually. You know it isn’t just me!) as we are forced to contemplate what we might do in a similar situation. We feel as if we can fly when listening to music like Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ and new imagery and ideas seep through our veins. We look at an art installation in the street and start thinking about who put it there, and why. And eventually, these feelings and thoughts, these what ifs and bits of string, help us formulate new stories, and put new art into the world.