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This Might Be Something, Part 2

Of course, it’s the house I think of now more than almost anything else. I imagine it as it was back in the days when we first knew it. I build it up again, brick by brick. My dark chateau, my sleeping beauty castle, half-suffocated by weeds and fingers of ivy. The long lawns tangled, and the garden heavy with dying flowers and overripe fruit rotting in the grass.

Inside the dusty windows, there could be music playing: scratchy old jazz records, a tinkling piano melody. The secret sound of footsteps, one-two-three, of a heavy satin skirt dragged across the bare floorboards. There is the smell of cigarette smoke, a fur stole tossed over a chair, and there are suitcases waiting in the hallway. They are labelled with the names of exotic destinations: Constantinople, Zanzibar, Timbuktu. It is as if a party has just ended, with empty glasses and full ashtrays and a sudden loneliness, a sharp edge of regret.

The house must have been there forever. It was ageless: it could never have been built from ordinary brick and plaster. It was not a house at all but something else altogether: the ruins of a medieval castle, the site of sacred standing stones. It was a dream-place: it had sprung fully-formed on the hillside, complete with its marble bathrooms, its fountain, its chandeliers, its drowsy garden of old roses and ancient trees.

The garden was green and gold. It was the colour of leaves shot through with sunlight, of Isobel’s green skirt, of light skipping across the water, of surfacing as the spray flew upwards and turned to glitter. It could never be forgotten. I know it’s supposed to be “all about the future” now: I’m supposed to be moving forward, but somehow I find myself coming back again, through the gate, down the path, back into the garden, pacing out the story.

Maybe I do think about it too much. Behind my own words, there’s tinkling laughter, mocking voices. They always did say I was too serious, too ponderous, too intense. “Don’t take everything so seriously,” Nancy used to say, exasperated with me yet again. “You’re being weird,” Alix said, her voice marshmallow-light, milkshake-pink. But this is my story now, so I can be serious if I want to be. I can tell it however I want.

Once upon a time it seemed easy to move forward. We couldn’t wait. We were following a line marked on a map in red ink, fast-track to the future, on the express route to tomorrow, no stops, no waiting. We skipped blithely along towards the horizon, arm-in-arm. But now I always seem to be walking in circles that spread outwards just as a pebble falls into water. A carousel, a circle of candles to be jumped for some reason I’ve forgotten. It’s as if I’m lost on the Circle Line, going on and on, down and down, rattling through the long dark tunnels with a tinny silver sound reverberating in my ears, always missing my way and ending up strung out at the end of a line I never wanted to take. I miss the exits, and now the future is just a dim light in the distance. I can no longer see it clearly: it’s just a blur, an imaginary thing. Maybe I am slumbering somewhere in an enchanted poppy field, though I still wear my red sandals for luck.

As to the past, that is done with now, shut up in books with hard covers, and arranged neatly on shelves in sections and sequences: maybe some old yearbook in the school library, doodles on the yellowed paper. It’s just history, like the lessons where we learned the dates of things: births and deaths, wars and peace treaties, controversies, grand betrayals. I wrote them down in my exercise book but somehow I never could remember them. They were erased by the slow, flickering tick of the schoolroom clock, and Alix’s hair gleaming in a shaft of sun. Of course, she wasn’t writing down dates: she was staring out of the window, or drawing swirly patterns in her exercise book: hearts and flowers, moons and stars, a kaleidoscope of colour like a bad acid trip and her name, ALIX, written in giant pink and purple letters, filling a whole page. She said history was boring. She rolled her eyes and said, “Who cares?” She was always more interested in the here and now, but she came top in all the history exams just the same. It was one of her paradoxes.

Of course, that was back when her own future was tangible, bright and light, a door opening, held out to her in the palm of an outstretched hand. “She’ll go far,” people said, and the headmistress wrote on her end-of-year report that she was a young lady with a bright future. She always seemed destined for driving down long, empty highways, glamorous in a gleaming white convertible, with the radio turned up and her blonde hair flying free beneath a wide blue sky. Of course, back then I would have seen myself in the passenger seat, but now I’ve drifted too far from the days of blue-sky dreams of open roads. I’m here now, trapped in this context: these four walls, this city, the yellow light of the afternoon. In the next room, the radio buzzes like an angry fly.

“So, what about the future?” people ask me: the personal tutors, the uncles who can’t think of anything else to say. “What’s next?” I can’t answer them. I shrug and say something non-committal; I have trouble imagining a future, trouble thinking about it. Perhaps that’s because I don’t want to think about it, not really. In the end, I’d rather think about the past.

[Read Part 1/Part 3]

This Might be Something Part 1

In the beginning, there was only green. Green and green and nothing more: the green haze of meadows; long leaf-green summer days; the glass green of a pool. In spring the trees were electric. The hedgerows flashed past me behind glass, bending away into nothing. There was only the endless green of the garden, blurring before me as far as the eye could see.

But I don’t want it to begin this way. The beginning ought to be so much more spectacular. This is our Big Opening, after all, so surely there should be fireworks, a band striking up, velvet curtains swishing open with a flourish? I want the shimmering of strings as the opening titles roll and we descend from above in a pool of light, a shower of glitter and confetti. The wave of a magic wand, the silver clash of cymbals, a puff of smoke, a cosmic explosion. The heavens and earth rising out of chaos as we slide out of the void and burst into being in tiaras, feather boas and sequinned shoes. The wave of our hands – hello there! we’ve made it! – and trumpets sounding out a triumphant ta da!

But perhaps there were no fireworks. Perhaps instead we came to life quietly, awaking first in the garden. Say it all happened slowly, amongst the roses that bled fat petals into our empty hands, with mossy grass between our toes. Or maybe it began the bare room, beneath the cold ticking of the clock on the wall, far from the green of the garden. Some sleight of hand and here we are: perhaps after all the end is where we start from.

Back to the start. Stop. Rewind. In the beginning there was green and only green. I’m going back through the gate, down the path, back to the beginning. I’m telling you how it really happened: with distant voices, and laughter. High summer again and the garden callow, viridescent. The garden is green and green and nothing more and I am lost again the long grass, where the lawn slopes away towards the still lake shore.

[Read Part 2/Part 3]

news and good stuff round-up

It has been a very busy week or two. It’s been one of those times when I suspect I might be a bit mad even attempting to have a full-time job at the same time as studying for an MA. On the other hand, though, it’s also been a really varied and interesting couple of weeks, so I can’t really complain too much.

Anyway, I will shortly be heading down to That London for a few days, but first, here are a few things I wanted to post – a quick round-up of news:

Apartment is closing its doors… The unique exhibition space in a council tower block flat, co-curated by Hilary Jack and Paul Harfleet will close its programme with a show by Giorgio Sadotti entitled ‘PAUL, PAUL IS THE ART’. The show runs until 2nd April and viewing is by appointment – check it out while you have the chance!

Throughout March, look out for the project If you read this, I’ll give it to you by artist Katya Sander throughout the public spaces of Manchester and Salford. Thousands of pin-badges bearing the statement “If you read this, I’ll give it to you (but then you must wear it too)” are moving through the cities, travelling from person to person. Badges will be available at sites within the city, and can be taken from anyone you see wearing them. The project is part of Whose Cosmopolitanism? a series of public events to launch the Research Institute for Cosmopolitan Cultures (RICC) at the University of Manchester which has also included events with visiting speakers such as David Harvey and Jacqueline Rose.

The Other Xeno-epistemic is an interesting event coming up at A Foundation on Friday 20 March. The event is part of TAXED, A Foundation’s series of events designed by locally-based artists which explore the power of imitation, and “art’s capacity to import other people’s ideas, to shamelessly replicate successful existing models, to beggar belief with its flagrant piracy!” This event has been literally “taxed” from a workshop by Sarat Maharaj at Test Site, Rooseum, Malmö in 2002, and involves a “sideways” reading of a chapter from Deleuze & Guttari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Participants are each assigned a footnote to research in advance, and will come together to discuss their findings and ideas, resulting in what Maharaj describes as “the kind of crazy-paving reading that makes [artists] ‘dodgy’ from the ‘doctoral’ point of view”. You can read more here, including details of how you can participate and view the results!

Nominations for this year’s Best of Manchester Awards are now open. There are categories for art, music and fashion (though sadly not for writing) so get nominating all your talented friends and neighbours!

And coming soon… Artyarn will be artists in residence at Contact throughout April and May as part of the AIRprogramme. As well as workshops and yarn bombing, they plan to produce a new piece of work, the Knitting Orchestra – an experimental sound piece produced directly from the act of knitting.

Take a look at the new Preston Writing Network which aims to “put Preston’s diverse and vibrant literary culture on the map,” promoting and developing new writing in Preston through on-line activity and a programme of workshops, live literature and more. The network is the writing strand of They Eat Culture, a new arts development company run from the Continental Arts Space in Broadgate, and there’s more information about how to get involved or submit work to the blog here.

Please find ZigZag! is a storytelling project launched by Litfest and writer David Gaffney. If you should happen to be in Lancaster, look out for a series of mysterious lost cat posters appearing around the city centre. These stories form the first part of a three-part story of unrequited love set in and around the Storey Institute. You can read more online by checking out both characters blogs – Fern and Charlie – though really, half the fun of this story is how it unravels in real time in the public spaces of Lancaster in a distinctly non-digital format.

Do check out Bewilderbliss, a new literary magazine dedicated to “new words from new writers” which showcases the poetry and prose of Manchester University and MMU postgraduate creative writing students. You can buy the brand new first issue (the theme is ‘The Guilty’) from the Cornerhouse foyer bookshop where I hear you can also get hold of Belle Vue, another new zine I’m hearing good things about from reliable sources (see here and here). I’m loving all this DIY publishing action going on at the moment!

Kate from The Manchizzle is organising a get-together for Manchester Bloggersat Centro on Tuesday (10 March). I plan to be there, and will be wearing my name-tag with pride!

On a similar blog-related note… I am astonished by the wealth of great new Manchester blogs I keep coming across at the moment – it feels like I discover one practically every day. If you want a good read, may I point you in the direction of Equine Obesity, Mithering Times and Blunt Fringe just for starters? And whatever you do, don’t miss Emily Powell’s My Shitty Twenties which is absolutely brilliant.

…I was reading somewhere recently that you should never write a blog post longer than a paragraph or two because people get bored and don’t bother reading it. That’s a rule I absolutely fail to observe on this blog, and I have certainly broken it very conclusively today. If you’re still with me, well done you. And you’ll probably be relieved to hear that I’ve now finished.

writing for pleasure

The second edition of the excellent Manchester Review includes an interview by MJ Hyland with Irish novelist Colm Toíbín in which he somewhat controversially claims there is “no pleasure” to be found in the process of writing:

Oh, there’s no pleasure. Except that I don’t have to work for anyone who bullies me. I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question. I would associate this with narcissism anyway and I would disapprove of it.

Toíbín’s response, which was picked up by the Guardian on Monday, fascinates me precisely because personally, I couldn’t feel more different. I don’t think there’s any way I would ever write anything if I didn’t love the process of writing. Narcissistic or not, like Will Self – one of nine writers surveyed by the Guardian in response to Toíbín – I find the whole experience of writing enormously enjoyable: “the mechanics of writing, the dull timpani of the typewriter keys, the making of notes – many notes – and most seductive of all: the buying of stationery.” Maybe it’s because I don’t do it for a living – or maybe it’s because of the kind of writing I do – but unlike Amit Chaudri, who believes “writing novels is no fun; nor is, generally speaking, reading novels” – for me writing (and reading for that matter, novels more than anything else) has always been a source of uncomplicated pleasure.

In fact, just thinking about this makes me sorry that I seem to do so little writing of fiction these days – I struggle to find either the time or the imaginative space to give to it. But I do miss writing more regularly and consistently, for the sheer experience far more than any actual ‘outcomes’. What I miss is the utterly self-indulgent pleasure of what A.L. Kennedy describes as “making something out of nothing, overturning the laws of time and space, building something for strangers just because you think they might like it, and hours of absence from self.”

Of course, I don’t pretend that writing – and especially writing fiction – isn’t hugely difficult. In fact, it’s often a fraught process, with all the pitfalls that Hari Kunzu pinpoints “self-disgust, boredom, disorientation and a lingering sense of inadequacy, occasionally alternating with episodes of hysterical self-congratulation as you fleetingly believe you’ve nailed that particular sentence and are surely destined to join the ranks of the immortals, only to be confronted the next morning with an appalling farrago of clichés that no sane human could read without vomiting.” But it’s exactly that sense of a challenge, of problems to be overcome, of seemingly insurmountable obstacles in your path that makes writing fulfilling – and thus (or perhaps I’m just a masochist!) also ultimately enjoyable.

Consequently, I was surprised how many of the novelists in the Guardian’s survey appeared to agree with Toíbín, some even claiming they were simply in it for the cold, hard cash – though amongst the wealth of negative voices, Self and Julie Myerson (“Writing gives me enormous pleasure…it’s a joyous thing”) provided welcome relief. 

However, I have to say that I am tempted to take all of their responses with a pinch of salt – for as Joyce Carol Oates herself rather perspicaciously reminds us, D.H. Lawrence tells us to trust the tale and not the teller. Ultimately one can’t help suspecting that these writers are simply entering into a process of self-mythologising, consciously or unconsciously believing they should uphold the stereotype of the “tortured artist.” Of course everyone’s different, and my experience isn’t necessarily true for everyone, but I do wonder if there’s just a tiny little bit of “protesting too much” going on here.

I’d be intrigued to know what others out there make of the question of “writing for pleasure”. For those writers out there, is the process of writing something you enjoy, or is it just too fraught to be truly pleasurable? And if so – for those of us unable to command fees for our work on the Toíbín scale at least – what do you think it is that motivates us to do it at all?

26 things to do before I turn 27

I am ill again. I think I have the flu, or something flu-ish anyway. I can’t believe I am ill, yet again. Once again I’m missing all kinds of things I wanted to do, like going to this, or the opening of this new exhibition, not to mention lots of important university and work related stuff. Instead I am lying low with a gallon of lemsip, more tissues than you could possibly imagine and all my blankets. To cheer myself up I have been experimenting with tumblr (most addictive – check me out here) writing postcards to friends, and knitting. I’m just crossing my fingers and hoping the evil disease won’t hang around for too much longer.

Anyway, to get onto more positive things… one of my favourite bloggers, andrea of hulaseventy has a little tradition of writing a list of exciting things she hopes to do in the coming year each birthday. You can see her list of the 38 things she plans to do before she turns 39 here.

I really like the idea of a list like this. It’s not about sensible, worthy things you feel you ‘ought’ to do, or even a traditional ‘to do’ list as such, but a list of things you genuinely want to do – the places you want to go, the projects you want to start, the adventures you want to have.

I was inspired to make my own list of the things I’d like to do this year, which I thought I would share here. Some of the things on this list are totally new, but others are things I have done before but would like to do again, or things I do already but would like to do more of. It was surprising how quick it was to write – I had a lot of ideas, but thought maybe I’d better save at least some of them for next year!

  1. knit a jumper
  2. go on an adventure by train
  3. sit around a midsummer bonfire
  4. go to a really good sushi restaurant
  5. find the perfect vintage dress
  6. pass my driving test
  7. practice the piano
  8. start a new novel
  9. get a bicycle with a basket (in an ideal world, it would be this one)
  10. go wild swimming
  11. finally finish reading ‘a la recherche du temps perdu’
  12. plant something
  13. go to new york
  14. make a charm necklace
  15. order moo cards
  16. go dancing
  17. find a lovely place to live (no green taps please!)
  18. learn to crotchet
  19. write a dissertation!
  20. have a handmade christmas
  21. eat a lobster
  22. investigate d-i-y publishing
  23. go to rye in east sussex
  24. take more photographs
  25. drink champagne (this one is in much the same vein as ‘eat more cake’ I feel)
  26. take a break

(The picture is a sample of just one of many images on my new tumblr thingy – this one comes via яuғina♫)