That difficult second novel

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway: don’t read the first draft.

Halfway through writing my first novel, I wondered why I was doing this. I wondered why anyone did this, and I vowed I wouldn’t do it again. In fact, I couldn’t imagine ever being able to write another novel, even if I managed to finish this one. I’d be like Harper Lee (only not as good, obviously). People would say: ‘Whatever happened to Anna Sayburn Lane? Did she never write another book?’ And I’d say: ‘Why on earth would I do that?’

I’m within a gnat’s crotchet of finishing the first draft of my second novel. I’m pleased about this for two reasons:

1: It gives me something to focus on while waiting (again) to hear from publishers/agents about novel one.

2: I actually can write another novel.

I also know, however, that a first draft is not a novel. In Hemingway’s words, all first drafts are shit. I prefer to think of it as a preparatory sketch. It’s how I work out what I want to write, who the characters (probably) are, roughly what happens, the general story arc, the tone. What happens next is like translating a sketch into an oil painting. Some details will be added, some deleted, some changed completely now that I can see the overall effect.

So it’s not even close to finished. But a story exists, and didn’t exist back in November. It’s nothing like novel one, which will annoy publishers/agents no end if I tell them. It’s much shorter, and (I hope) funny. It was inspired by my favourite comic novels, Cold Comfort Farm and the Jeeves and Wooster series, which may be setting the bar a touch high. It needs at least one complete re-write, more jokes, and a title. I don’t know if it’ll ever get published, or if it’ll amuse anyone other than myself. It will be finished, though, one day, and knowing that gives me a quiet satisfaction that nothing else can match.

 

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Caught by the River Thames

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The Thames from Putney Bridge

The first Caught by the River Thames festival at Fulham Palace was conceived as “a cross between a vicar’s tea party and an Anti-Nazi League gig,” according to one of the organisers. So what washed up on the river bank?

There was a strong literary/nature writing theme to the weekend. Some of my favourite authors, including Iain Sinclair and Melissa Harrison, talked waterways, wilderness and seasons.

Sinclair spoke of the choice Londoners face between following the river upstream, to the riparian villages of Cookham and Swan Upping, or downriver to the ‘Heart of Darkness’ in the estuary. Conrad or Jerome K Jerome – two impossibly different visions of the Thames.

I loved Harrison’s description of how seasons in a temperate country like the UK help us understand and keep track of time – ‘The seasons are to time as a metronome is to music.’ The rhythm of the year, blackberries to bare branches, cherry blossom to courgette flowers, provides some reassurance of our place in the dizzying march of time.

More potential dizzying from Andy Hamilton, who kicked off Sunday with a masterclass in creating booze for free, talking us through his experiments in infusing, brewing and making alcoholic concoctions from the most amazing ingredients. I’m planning to have a go at his 18-botanical gin, made in half an hour during his talk, although I may give the kelp martini a miss.

Chill-out time meant a retreat to snooze under an apple tree in the bosky and beautiful  Walled Garden, complete with impressive vegetable patch, bee hives and spectacular dahlias.

There was music, as befits a festival, from the trippy North African Imarhan, to the final stomping session from headliners Super Furry Animals. I loved both of these, as well as the impressively funky Llareggub Brass Band and Ramones-wannabees Temples. I’m not a Beth Orton fan, though, and Saturday night’s doom rockers Low were not a high point for me either. My main disappointment was being unable to see poet/rapper Kate Tempest perform, as she’d been scheduled for a room far too small for the numbers who wanted to see her.

The unexpected highlight was watching music journalist Lauren Laverne interview the wildlife broadcaster and campaigner Chris Packham on the main stage, while we sat and basked in the blazing sunshine. The interview was surprisingly personal, given that several hundred people were watching, with Chris describing how his Asperger’s syndrome affected the way he perceived the natural world. He described his early forays into natural history, his forthright methods of getting a job at the BBC, and encouraged us not to run away if faced by a predator. I’ll remember that, next time I’m set upon by a baboon.

He also had a ‘rant’ about the plight of the hen harrier, asking us all to sign a petition to prompt a parliamentary debate about the detrimental effect of driven grouse moors on the numbers of these birds of prey. I’ll finish with a link to the petition – I signed when I got home. I hope you will consider doing so too: Ban Driven Grouse Shooting.

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Bees enjoying the dahlias

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Melissa Harrison

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Iain Sinclair

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Going rural: walking Shakespeare’s Way

Poppies and churches

Poppies and churches

It was a romantic idea. We’d pack our rucksacks and walk through the heart of England, dallying through the picturesque Warwickshire and Oxfordshire countryside that William Shakespeare would have passed on his commute from Stratford-on-Avon to the London playhouses.

A couple of things got in the way of this idyll. Firstly, I’m now unable to think about that journey without picturing David Mitchell complaining about carts being derailed and replacement donkey services, in the peerless BBC comedy Upstart Crow. Secondly, we set off three days after the Brexit vote, and I wasn’t feeling that fondly towards the heart of rural Britain. It felt like entering the belly of the beast.

So it was with trepidation that I boarded the train from Marylebone. By the time we arrived, the train was 90% foreign students heading for Shakespeare’s home town (51% leave voters). In fact, about 90% of Stratford seems to live off overseas pilgrims to its literary shrine. You don’t mind taking foreigners’ money, I muttered to myself, eyeing the  locals with suspicion.

Drama at Shakespeare's birthplace

Drama at Shakespeare’s birthplace

Naturally, everyone we met was lovely, from our briskly friendly B&B owner, to the volunteers in Shakespeare’s family home, to the staff in Hathaway Tea Shoppe (yes, really). The town is preserved in aspic, its black and white Elizabethan houses sleepy in the afternoon sun. Perversely, we chose to see a Ben Jonson play at the Swan Theatre, which was excellent.

After paying our respects at Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church, we set out along the path beside the river. (If you visit, check out the eye-popping scenes of medieval debauchery on the misericords). The path wound through ridiculously picturesque villages, taunting us with mill ponds and watermills, wildflowers and skimming dragonflies. Our first lunch stop was on a village green complete with maypole. That was when it started to rain.

I should have known better than to book a UK holiday for the first week of Wimbledon. The next couple of days can best be summed up as rain, mud, fields, cows, wheat, fields, mud, rain. It’s not the most exciting countryside – if I didn’t know where all our wheat and barley came from, I sure do now. There were lots of ancient churches to visit, though, and the hedgerows were full of poppies.

Mud

Mud

After a hard day wading through mud, a comfortable bedroom and decent dinner become particularly important. We stayed at a couple of funereal pubs, where rooms came equipped with carpet moths, silverfish and the world’s smallest bathroom. We found a few nice places to eat, the more ambitious marked by stuff served on slates and chips in little metal baskets. (Guys, plates are fine.) We also ate some of the nastiest food I’ve tasted since the 1980s, served with a mixture of indifference and outright hostility. Not enough cheerful migrants around to raise standards, clearly.

So yes, I’m a spoiled Londoner who’s fussy about my food. But what about the politics in these pubs? Were they shaking their pitchforks and celebrating their victory over the metropolitan elite? The main difference was that no-one was talking about Brexit. Unlike London, where we’d been unable to talk about anything else, people were getting on with their lives and ignoring the seismic change in our political landscape. Rants about humiliating exits from Europe turned out to be about football. I heard one political conversation – a red-faced Tory endorsing Theresa May with the observation:  “Better than Gove. He’s not just a shit, he’s an unprincipled shit.”

That was in Woodstock, just up the road from Churchill’s grave, which I’d visited earlier in the day. What would he have thought of the shenanigans, I wondered, getting the uneasy feeling he’d probably have backed Boris. The day before we’d been in Chipping Norton, fabled home of the Cameroons, although they were not in evidence. The Cotswolds mostly voted remain – indeed, I had the one Brexit conversation of the week there, with the owner of the lovely Jaffe and Neale bookshop, who said book purchasing in the town had been down since the vote.

We made it into Oxford (a strong 70% remain vote) on Saturday afternoon, shocked by the plunge from hazy water meadows into its noisy, crowded streets. We sought out the site of a pub where Shakespeare had supposedly stayed. It’s now a Betfred, which wasn’t very romantic. It took a while to acclimatise to the roar of a big city, but Sunday morning found me ensconced in the terrace cafe of the Ashmolean Museum, sipping perfect coffee, planning the day’s cultural tour. I’d gone rural for a week, and survived.

Recovering in the Ashmolean

Recovering in the Ashmolean

Recommended places:

Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Henley Street, Stratford on Avon. I was cynical about this at first, assuming I already knew everything there was to know about Shakespeare. I was an idiot. It’s fascinating, especially John Shakespeare’s glove-making workshop, which would probably have stunk the entire house out.

The George Townhouse and White Bear in Shipston-on-Stour. We liked a lot about this charming village, and dinner at the nicely-refurbished George was a highlight. Breakfast at the White Bear was jolly good too, and they were very kind about the amount of mud we brought in from a wet day’s walking.

Jaffe and Neale bookshop, Chipping Norton. Friendly bookshop with a good selection of books and gifts, and a nice cafe. A great pitstop in this pretty but rather pleased with itself little town.

Turl Street Kitchen, Turl Street, Oxford. Great, local food in a relaxed and friendly bar/restaurant. Good selection of wine and beer. An excellent place to recover from a taxing week’s holiday.

 

 

 

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Flaneurserie at the London Review Bookshop

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Flaneuse in Cecil Court. Does it count if you’re playing Pokemon Go?

I’ve yet to meet a writer who doesn’t appreciate the pleasures of a leisurely stroll through a city. Overheard snatches of conversation, relationships being negotiated, the press of a rush hour crowd, hidden courtyards and quiet parks, provide rich fodder for the imagination.

I’ve long aspired to the status of flâneur, the observer who sets himself (usually) aside from the crowd to take pleasure in watching. Exploring cities on foot is a favourite pasttime, from the Manchester of my student years, to Paris, New York, Florence, Madrid – and of course my home town, London. So I was intrigued to find out more about the female experience, from Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City, in conversation with Brian Dillon at the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury.

A flâneuse, Elkin tells us, is ‘a determined resourceful woman keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk’. I’ll take that.

Paris spawned the notion of the flâneur. Self-consciously dressing up their wanderings in a frock-coat of literary intent, writers like Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin claimed the streets and cafès as their own. It’s always been harder for women. Writer Georges Sands famously borrowed her brother’s boots and breeches for her own perambulations through Paris, delighting in being able to disappear into the crowd.

The difficulty comes, as Elkin said, with the male gaze. Much as women might like to go unnoticed while walking alone in the city, ‘it’s the gaze of the flâneur that makes us so conspicuous.’ There’s an queasy connection between a woman walking the streets, and a street-walker. Why has this woman left her home to go gadding about the city, if not for business or pleasure, or the business of pleasure?

The problem has by no means disappeared. I was threatened with sexual violence as a student walking home through Manchester late at night. When I wanted to stroll in Madrid, where I lived in my early 30s, I’d choose a nondescript outfit that would not result in the hisses and shouts of ‘Rubia!’ (Blondie) that followed me if I dared to wear a short skirt. Now that I’m older, I can walk London with impunity. It’s a relief, but I feel sad that I had to look dull. Why shouldn’t the flâneuse adopt her own flamboyant, dandy style? It’s not about being invisible, I realise, just about being comfortable.

Bloomsbury seemed a good place to consider the flâneuse. It’s a fine place to wander, through the squares and gardens. Bloomsbury doyenne Virginia Woolf wrote one of the finest novels of walking the city, in Mrs Dalloway, whose footsteps you can trace around town. Clarissa Dalloway, of course, wasn’t merely wandering, but out to buy the flowers. Shopping is an acceptable excuse for women walking alone. Only Peter Walsh, her former admirer, is able to be ‘completely free’ in his wanderings, to the extent of following a woman through the streets, wondering whether she is ‘respectable’.

Respectability seems a great hindrance for a flâneuse. Some of my favourite writing comes in the novels of Sarah Waters, who gives us transgressive women – feminists, lesbians, cross-dressers, thieves – walking the streets for pleasure or profit, or simply for something to do. Her description in The Night Watch of walking the bombed streets of the city during the black-out has a particularly hallucinatory power.

I’m looking forward to learning more about artistic flâneuse through Elkin’s book, including the film-maker Agnes Varda and photographer Sophie Calle. Both did interesting things with the female gaze, not least turning it on men. Neither of them sound in the least bit respectable, and I’m delighted to make their acquaintance.

Flâneuse is published by Penguin.

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Midsummer madness at the Globe

Titania

Zubin Varla as Oberon and Meow Meow as Titania

I saw this show two days after the UK voted to leave the EU, in what seemed to me a fit of midsummer madness. I was with a Belgian friend who was now wondering how long she will be able to live in lovely London – and whether she was still welcome. We were both in serious need of cheering up.

Boy, did the Globe deliver. This was one sexy, swaggering, joyous carnival of theatre. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s dafter plots. It requires an embrace of the absurd and fantastical, a massive willingness to suspend disbelief. I mean, fairies. Love potions. Amateur actors sprouting donkey’s heads, with scant regard for evolutionary theory. Richard Dawkins would hate it.

I’ve seen minimalist productions that expect you to do that work on your own, with only a few leotards and hanging drapes to help your imagination. This production, Emma Rice’s first as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, could be described as maximalist.

It doesn’t feel like a play, so much as a musical show, a celebration rich with comedy, dance and song. Other voices, from John Donne to David Bowie, are conscripted to the irreverent mix. The energy fizzes, the costumes dazzle, the wit sparkles. The farcical elements are played to the max, wringing every drop of comedy from Titania’s lust for Bottom, and the lovers’ misplaced longing for each other. The energy is earthy and raw, the fairies elemental rather than ethereal. Titania (the outstanding Meow Meow) and Oberon are wilful as well as powerful, dishevelled, funny and magnificent by turns.

The much-commented gender swap from Helena to Helenus could have been gimmicky, but Ankur Bahl gave the part a heartbroken tenderness that makes good sense of the lovers’ relationships. Anjana Vasan was a charmingly lusty Hermia, Katy Owen a beguiling Puck. By the end of the show, when the puzzles had been resolved, the play had been played out and every Jack had his Jill (or his Jack), we were swept up into a dazzling finale of bhangra that rocked us out of our seats.

It was the sort of thing London does best. Shakespeare, our greatest national treasure, can well take anything that multi-ethnic, pan-sexual London can thrown at him. Indeed, his work dazzles all the brighter for the alchemy.

In a strange contrast, I was in Stratford-on-Avon three days later, sipping tea in the Hathaway tea shop in the heart of this Midlands English town. Stratford has been preserved for the nation as a genteel Shakespeare-land, with more Elizabethan houses than you can shake a stick at. Shakespeare might have recognised the buildings, but I bet he’d have recognised the excitement of the Globe as a truer legacy of his genius.

Photo: Steve Tanner.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Emma Rice, is at Shakespeare’s Globe until 11 September 2016.

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