Tuesday, 15 February 2011


The Bull Ring, Derbyshire See Correspondence

Watsonworks Blog 20

Every story is a journey,
every journey an exploration

Stories operate across time and distance; they are exterior and interior explorations. As readers, we take a journey in the hope of resolution, and on the way it’s possible that things happen to us. In the best stories we enter in to the action through our own imagination and the alchemy of the writer. We seek escape, change, pastures new; and often having relished these pastures we return for more.

For the author the terrain that has been covered and re-covered by other writers resembles Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. On the face of it exhaustively worked, minutely excavated, the treasures seemingly dug up and carried away leaving bare patches of earth, there is the risk of accepting that the only new story is Journey’s End.

Inspired by the likes of archeologist Howard Carter who persisted in his searches in the Valley of the Kings against learned advice, and came upon Tutankhamen, the dedicated writer spades away until some talisman, however small, however insignificant turns up.

The search itself is a journey and this is aided by tools of the trade – curiosity, alert interest and attention, observations noted and stored, connecting up elements which may have strewn the creative path, unused, scarcely noticed, for years.

So part of the choice of journey has something to do with the market, but chiefly it is about the journeys an author would like to make or has already made, in fact or imagination. It goes back to childhood: what at that time were the journeys at first read out by parents, teachers, uncles and aunts doing the babysitting.

Competition for attention
It depends, of course, on the availability of stories, those books with such magical illustrations that the images haunt the memory for a lifetime; if, that is, the opportunity is there, and the motivation to read and look.

For every writer-in-the-making reading comes first, then comes emulation or even straight copying. In my case I was soon jungle-bound inspired by Ryder Haggard or manning the battlements of Malta in face of the invading Turkoman to a point when reading and writing were almost the same activity.

History as well as myth and legend was stirring the creative genes, and the more this took me away from home base (and British winters) the better. The pen became my Cook’s tour, carrying me on an adventurous journey from London to Renaissance Florence (in Sign of the Swallow), landing me on Crete, isle of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur (The Bull Leapers) or guiding me along the amazing Silk Road to China (Legion of the White Tiger); in fact, anywhere but chez nous.

Not safe for tourists
But there’s more to travel than tourism. The story is where the action is. Tourists may be suddenly caught in dramatic events not of their own making, but they’ve not come on holiday to suffer bricks and bullets. The writer of stories – of adventures – does. Drama and conflict attract the storyteller. It could readily be said that this is pure escapism in that writers in their studies may create chaos and mayhem but at the end of the afternoon there’s still tea and a quiet kip in the sun.

That does not make the process risk free. If, in the action there are messages; if these messages illustrate values, then for writers in a dozen or a hundred countries there are those dedicated to curtailing freedom of expression. Along the route of the journey values lie like stepping stones, sometimes (and often preferably) hidden.

Even if their existence is denied by the author, they continue to configure who the writer is and what he or she ultimately stands for. The clues may be miniscule and fragmentary, but they are still present and in a constant state of activation.

A world evoked
Each sortie into a journey reaches for an authenticity beyond plain fact. At a basic level the process is one of description, what the terrain looks like, feels like, but it soon becomes one of evocation. The sketch has filled in the outlines. Imagination takes up the baton and slowly the evoked world is transformed into a new reality where fact merges into legend; a world possessing its own dynamic.

Journeys take us into the unknown but once there they can become more real to us than our everyday experience. They are dramatically heightened, often scarily so, drawing us in, enfolding us in visions and emotions that frighten us but embolden us to progress, to traverse the minefield of coming events.

No better example of journeying from the real to a fantasy of overwhelming power is Philip Pullman’s masterly His Dark Materials trilogy, not only creating a world beyond the real, but two worlds living side by side. Lyra’s journey to the Arctic is both real and a dream, terrifying yet shot through with examples of memorable humanity, even if far from all the characters are human.

Pullman captures the essence of travel as revelation and discovery in the final words of Northern Lights, the first book of the trilogy: ‘So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked towards the sun, and walked into the sky’.

Being there
Years ago I was interviewed on radio about Talking in Whispers set in Chile during the tyranny of the generals. When I said I had not actually been to the country, the interviewer couldn’t keep out of her voice a sense of disapproval. A little while later, an exile from Chile said after reading the book that it was an accurate portrayal and that she could hardly believe that I had not actually walked the avenues of Santiago.

My response was that imagining things and places is what authorship is all about: you try, you try harder until you hope you get it right. In my BBC interview perhaps I ought to have pointed out that I had not fought in the Spanish Civil War (The Freedom Tree) or been ambushed in the jungles of West Africa (No Surrender).

Also, I doubt whether Philip Pullman has spent much time at the North Pole; nor, I guess, did Michael Morpurgo personally experience the horrors of the 1st World War trenches. He researched and acknowledged the help of Piet Chielens of the In Flanders Museum in Ypres. The proof of the pudding is in the reading.

No place like…
Of course literary travel does not require leaving home shores. What’s home-located gives the opportunity to journey into one’s own life and experience, not the least into one’s own language. The landscape in which stories are set is either entirely personal or more personal. The past may be ‘another country’ but it is one that influences and abuts the living present.

The hills of Lancashire, the Victoria Tower on the highest point above my home town, have featured in a number of my novels and plays; but the literary landscape is a fusion of future areas of habitation, Teesside and the North York moors, and the Derbyshire dales and peaks.

Where Nobody Sees is an amalgam of these but the story is an invention and the characters constructed out of fragments of friendship, acquaintance or simply observation and overhearing. Two young people happen upon the illegal dumping of nuclear waste. They are shaped out of the writing process, growing out of the necessities of narrative but then, hopefully, existing in their own right.

Path hazardous in places
Today perhaps more than ever before authors have to accept the fact that the competition for their wares is immense, that the outlets for their books are narrowing, that the small, attentive publishers of the past, who took the time to nurture talent, have been swallowed up by conglomerates with eyes fixed on what will sell, and sell quickly; all this in a context of cutbacks across the board in education, library closures and bookshops struggling to survive in the network society.

Good book, won’t sell is a familiar mantra. It’s a choice: tailor your work for the market (and possibly become rich) or follow your instinct. In my case, if I’d chosen the former path I’d never have set stories in Chile, East Timor (Justice of the Dagger) or Ukraine (Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa), and I’d certainly not have spent a year developing a tale set in medieval Florence, riddled by the plague and with the armies of Gian Galeazzo Visconti at the gate (Besieged: The Coils of the Viper).

Why such apparently unpromising (and practically unsaleable) choices? Well, as they say, it seemed a good idea at the time. I’m happy: I travelled, explored, discovered and the words on the page, I like to think, spoke the best of myself.

Further reading on Aspects of Writing:

Triggers & Props
[Blog 7, 7 January 2010]
Props propel [Blog 8, 15 February]
Frames, codes & character [Blog 9, 15 March]
Fiction and news [Blog 10, 14 April]
Tale Power [Blog 11, 14 October]
Fiction & history [Blog 16, 14 October]
Politics in teen fiction [Blog 17, 17 November]
Storytelling: the pleasures of research [Blog 19, 12 January 2011]

An edited composite of these is planned for posting on Scribd.com
open book site.

Jacqueline Christodoulou writes with reference to Blog 19’s piece on Storytelling: the pleasures of research…
"Very interesting blog post. There is a growing interest in visualisation being as good as 'being there' - or is it just filling in schema and, if so, would this be termed as fantasy writing as opposed to fiction writing re the scope of imagination involved? Hmm... On with the research."

* email from a friend: As I'm writing this, news has just come in of Mubarak's resignation. I stopped to take a look at TV showing the crowds in Liberation Square and I must confess that tears came to my eyes. A drop of hope in a seemingly brain-dead world.

* Mr. Ned Baslow writes to Watsonworksblog.blogspot.com about The Bull Ring, Derbyshire.

Dear Jim (may I?)
My wife Betty and I were very pleased to happen on your article about the megalithic sites of the Bull Ring and Arbor Low (in your Blog 15), and you’re absolutely right about the Bull Ring still being the centre of local activities. Betty and me did some of our courting there and any night after dusk you can expect to find the whole site, as it were, under occupation.

The tree in the centre of the site was actually planted from a cutting by my Grandad Barney. It was his intention to propose to my Gran under its leafy shade, only she missed the bus from Macclesfield. However, they made up for the disappointment with a fish and chip supper at Abbot’s Friary in Ambergate.

What’s very true in your comments is the feeling one gets of past generations still haunting the site, though my Benjie (fourteen next month) says his teacher told him there was a lot of human sacrifice going on, especially at Arbor Low – which explains the stones that lie all over the place just waiting for bodies to be laid out on them. ‘People were tied down and cut up,’ says Benjie.

Of course, as my Betty says – she is at present doing an Open University degree and thus knows about these things – this is nonsense, for the stones quite plainly were once upstanding and used as landmarks for weary travellers.

Benjie’s teacher is from Yorkshire, which explains things. Us Derbyshire folk know our history. Incidentally, my cousin Colin was in charge of Bonfire Night fireworks at The Bull Ring for many years – best night of the year he used to say. There was a bit of an accident last year when one of those super rockets, called Jupiters, I think, set fire to the local cricket pavilion, though nothing was damaged except some musty pads, stumping gloves and back copies of Wisden from 1958.

Betty and me enjoyed reading your poem 'Continuities' about these wonderful old sites, though Betty considered it on the long side, believing that anything longer than a sonnet makes her yawn. She quotes her OU tutor who believes there’s nothing in this world that can’t be expressed in a haiku.

Anyway, thanks again for reminding us of our courting days up at Dove Holes. It’s amazing to think just how many hundreds of generations snatched a bit of intimacy on those hallowed slopes.

With greetings from Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven (which also has a small megalithic site called Witches Rendezvous).

Yours etc.
Ned R.Baslow & family
Ed: Thanks, Ned, keep up the correspondence. Apparently those copies of Wisden would fetch a fortune these days.

Blog 18
14 December 2010
Takes up the theme discussed by historians such as Simon Shama on the vital importance to community understanding and identity of the study of history, and poses the question – which key events in history should young people know about?
PLUS reviews of two novels by Barbara Kingsolver by Tony Willams.

Blog 17
17 November 2010
Part 2 of the adapted article from The Best of Books for Keeps. Under Correspondence, an email letter from Anna Perera and a photo of a model made in a school to celebrate her Scottish literary prize.