Friday, 11 November 2011

Remembrance Day: Mum and Dad

Remembrance Day: Mum and Dad

There are many myths and stories around my parents long and happy romance, but the most memorable were those years during the 2nd World War. It not only brought them together, but changed my mother’s world out of all recognition.

My mum grew up in one of the poorest areas in Bristol at the time, in a nineteen-thirties slum: a go to bed hungry, wear raggedy hand-me-downs, no shoes slum. Her life before Dad was pretty much Dickensian. A mother who despised her, a step-father who brutalized … Dad would say to us kids – ‘Don’t ask your Mum. She had a horrible life back then.’ What I do know is that her step-father was a violent drunkard – Joe Knowles – who worked on the docks and who’d buy firewood, chop it up small, and send my mother out with a cart selling bundles door to door at the age of 10 just so he could buy more beer. Or send her off to pawn his best suit until payday when she’d have to go and buy it back.

Dad said that he first clapped eyes on Mum at a local school’s sports day. He’d stopped to watch, his eye caught by the pretty girl stuck fast in the ground-level netting of the Obstacle Race. He said he knew then.

Later, when Dad (a handsome Home Guard soldier) was patrolling a patch of Easton near the railway line – he lived in a two-up-two-down bursting-at-the-seams-with-a-large-family house in Barton Hill – he bumped into Mum by the bridge. On their first date, Dad told Mum they’d be together for at least fifty years. These days he’d sound like some crazed stalker, but this was the War years, he was smitten, Mum had film-star good looks and a lively intelligence – it was romance. It was love. It was fifty-four years until she died.

Those war years were some of the happiest of Mum’s life. Not only the war spirit of -we’re all in this together - or the stolen kisses, the dances, the Yanks over-sexed and over-here … but also because for the first time Mum was in the same billet as girls from all walks of life. Mum’s best friend was an upper middle class girl who taught Mum how to speak, instructed her on all matters etiquette. This transformed Mum from what she considered herself to be - an uncouth working class girl - to a confident woman. It gave her aspirations and helped their later social mobility up to the middle classes. Dad already had an easy affability which meant he could fit in anywhere.

So, The War moulded my mother. It saved her in many ways too. She’d insist Dad was her knight in shining armour (raised on the Golden Years of Hollywood!). And who could blame her? One in a million, your dad, she’d say. Handsome, talented, liked by all – and could handle himself in a fight. He once punched Joe Knowles on the nose when he caught him threatening Mum. Yes, one day I shall write about it. Maybe here is a start.

So, today – 11/11/11 - I shall think of Mum and Dad. Of their getting married on a forty-eight-hour pass, of their strolling arm-in-arm down Wine Street and all those other streets which were wiped out during German nighttime bombing raids of WWII; of how - sharing a lover’s walk - they had to dodge the fires, witness sights, screams, smells none of us can imagine; as the Great Blitz of Bristol happened all around them, and how The War shaped a whole generation. How it shaped them both.

They’re gone now. Soon I shall visit that spot where they first met. You can just make out the bridge which crossed the railway line. It was demolished long ago, and is now a cycle path. I can almost imagine them there, Irene with her dark hair and long legs, Charles with his strong walk and uniform. They’re both eighteen, their future before them. They’re laughing, smiling, stopping for a kiss, lighting a cigarette and gazing up into the night sky. Their story not told – yet. xxx

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Moody Stories

My daughter unexpectedly had the afternoon off today – she’s a medical student – apparently the hospital has Legionnaire’s Disease – anyway, she rang to ask me which Billy Wilder film she should watch. We’re both movie buffs and love the old classics. What’ve you got? I said. Well, she said, I’ve a choice of three: Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, or Sunset Boulevard. Wow, all great films, I said. Yes, said she, but which one?
Then it came to me. OK, I said, it depends on what sort of mood you want to be in. Because Some Like It Hot is upbeat and will make you smile, The Apartment is moving yet sweet – kind of somewhere in the middle because - Sunset Boulevard is tragic and sad. So, c’mon what mood do you want to be in?
This whole conversation got me thinking about writing a story or a scene, and how lately I’ve come round to considering mood. Just what mood am I going for with which scene. Or - and sometimes more importantly, (as I do like to write in close viewpoint) – what kind of mood is my main character in? Then I can check through my short story and/or scene and/or chapter and ensure that this mood is conveyed through story.
I think it’s useful to think about how we want our readers to feel about the story, overall. I know that I’ve had to rewrite actions and dialogue to reflect better just what mood my main character is in. I feel this brings extra clarity and truth to my fiction. The action is then driven even more by my main character(s) and I am better able to convey theme through mood. Sorted.
Mood is something I now look for in students written work. If there is an overall mood to a piece then I reckon that deserves extra brownie points!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Bridge Over Troubled Writing

So, I’m listening – yes listening mostly – and watching, of course the wonderful BBC3 documentary about the making of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. One of the best albums of all times.

Listening about how it was made, the creative processes, put me in mind of creative writing too. The music producer and Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel talked about how they made the sounds, how they created that unique mix. How important it was to, instead of add echo, to actually go into an echo chamber and record in there. How instead of doing separate voice tracks the boys recorded together on one mike and then recorded separately, all perfectly in sync, and then put together Again and again they talked about how they got such great sound and textures by not over-mixing and using gizmos but going out to different settings – from corridors to churches - using musicians, instruments, people, and how these were sounds and textures which could never be replicated by machines or in the studio alone. Not that they didn’t use machines and recording studios, but “instead of adding on the hand claps we decided to actually go out and find an audience to do that.”

It made me think about how many new creative writers feel that the only way to write is on the keyboard. They think that pen and paper are anathema. They can’t see/ feel that the texture, the gradations, the flow is different with paper and pen. Yes, of course I use computer, laptops, smart phones, (I’d use an i-pad if I could afford one) – but there’s no substitute for the creative flow which goes from brain through body, down arm, to hand. Just watching Art Garfunkel describe how they made music, using the whole of his body, gesticulating, those large – sculptor-like hands – brought to mind the feel of writing and crafting with paper. Writing with which you can take actual scissors and cut and paste with actual glue, write on index cards and physically move these around a table, lay them out on the floor. No amount of Scrivener or other similar programmes will ever replicate this. I can usually tell which of my students have written a passage by hand first, and which have done so straight onto the screen.

I agree with the writer who said – you have to get stuck in and get your hands dirty. I maintain that an over-reliance on keyboards is bringing the hackneyed, the plinky-plonk, the over-edited into creative writing. I want mine to soar, to be origami, to be moulded with my body and hands in a way that the squareness of screens and keyboards can not. I don’t want to be penned in – or should that be keyboarded in.

Our lives are full of typing – from text through to i-pad to emails to report writing – all of which is great. It’s all words. But I still maintain they’re not reaching your visceral brain. What is happening is writing which is too much in the head, or too much in the heart – i.e. either striving to be “clever” or “intellectual” or too gushing and purple prose. What is needed is some of the groin/ the visceral/ the getting those finger nails dirty. I maintain you’re more likely to connect there when employing pen, scribbles, freewriting from brain down hand to paper.

At times I’m accused of being too old or a Luddite to understand. Not so. I agree with Pablo Neruda who said "The keyboard separated me from a deeper intimacy with poetry, and my hand brought me closer to that intimacy again.' Pablo Neruda. And novelist Anne Tyler agrees that the muscular movement of putting down script on the paper gets her imagination back on track and Clive Barker said that for him, handwriting is 'the most direct assocation I can make between what's going on in my mind's eye and what's going to appear on the page.'

It seems nuts to me to chuck writing by hand out of your writer’s toolkit. It’s invaluable, and nothing gives you the same flow or the same words. I’m not saying abandon the keyboard, what I’m saying is give the p’s (pen and paper) a chance (yeah, rubbish John and Yoko joke).

Back to S & G – dontcha just love Bridge Over Troubled Water?