Last Saturday I was in Southwark, London SE1, researching locations for my new novel.
To me, the setting for a novel must have a strong emotional connection. My first two novels were set in the Cotswolds, near where I now live. My next novels will be set in London, near where I was born and brought up.
But what I’m interested in isn’t just the tourist sites; it’s the atmosphere, the pubs, the unexpected small parks and gardens, the odd corners and street names. Here’s a selection from the many photos I took. And I’ll be back again, absorbing the feel of the place, and imagining my characters into it.
When we visited on Saturday, as Sherlock fans, we found much to enthral, amuse and intrigue us. I was particularly captivated by a number of paintings of Victorian London in the fog, which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used to such great effect in his Sherlock Holmes stories.
He used the fog of London almost as a character in its own right, as a metaphor for human life, and for the mysteries Holmes was called upon to unravel. Sherlock Holmes’s familiarity with the rail network, the bus routes, the streets, pubs and cafes was used not only to give the stories character and depth but almost to power them. The exhibition enriched my understanding of how setting itself fires and drives a writer’s creativity.
The number of actors (the highest on the list, to my mind, are Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch) who have portrayed Holmes in the media is just one indication of the hold the character has taken on the public imagination.
An inspiring and illuminating exhibition which I recommend to all lovers of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
This production was originally commissioned by Sydney Opera House for its Graphic Festival and we saw the first of two nights at the Barbican to be followed by one night at Usher Hall in Edinburgh.
Having read and loved Neil Gaiman’s novels Coraline and The Graveyard Book I was looking forward to seeing this with my two teenage children. From his books and his tweets, I expected Neil Gaiman to be more zappy and over-the-top in person; but he isn’t; he’s gentle and laidback and low-key in his manner, with a self-deprecating humour.
Surely this is the best persona for him to adopt as he tells his tales. Anyone who knows his work expects a playfully dark twist. And this was fully realized in his novelette The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. In this he has chosen to create a Scottish tale, a grim and sombre story of revenge, written with a poetic quality appropriate for a tale from the Outer Hebrides set at the time of the Jacobite rebellion.
It was accompanied by big-screen projections of the illustrations by Eddie Campbell which were astonishingly vivid and real, by turns haunting, harsh and beautiful, conveying the atmosphere of the terrain and the ever-darker direction of the story. We were held captivated throughout Neil Gaiman’s narration; the musicians accompanied the tale with such emotional intelligence and imagination, it was an outstanding display of creative genius.
The story of the dwarf who goes searching for the cave of gold, accompanied by the mysterious tall “border reaver”, has played on my mind ever since, as I considered the rhythm and poetry of it, the elements of darkness and horror, and the moral lesson that lay behind it.
An evening which will stay in my mind for a long time.
I was there on Saturday, with my daughter Abigail, watching a performance of Swan Lake in the round, by the English National Ballet. Sixty swans danced in the arena below us, transformed into a lake by skilful lighting effects; and the audience delighted in the performances of Dmitri Gruzdyev as Prince Siegfried and Fernanda Oliveira as Odette and Odile.
The earliest memory I have of the Royal Albert Hall is when, as a child, I sang in the Chorus of Younger Angels in a performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony.
I stood close to the organ; and I’ve never forgotten that tremendous experience as trumpets, drums and organ, under Leonard Bernstein’s flambuoyant direction, brought Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ to its thunderous conclusion.
During my sixth form days in Orpington, Kent, I often took the train to London with my schoolfriends so we could sit on the pavement outside the Royal Albert Hall in a queue for promenaders tickets for the BBC Proms; and then, once inside the door, sprint to the arena, to find the best place at the front, near the conductor’s rostrum.
One summer, I spent several hours walking up and down the queue with spare tickets to sell, having bought Gallery tickets for a half season.
Later, when I lived in Bayswater, London W2, the Royal Albert Hall was just a stroll across Kensington Gardens, to go to the rehearsals and concerts of another choir I sang in – the London Choral Society.
Whenever I now enter the Royal Albert Hall, I feel a deep sense of affection and euphoria.
This great circular space is to me, and to many even without such memories, both grand and intimate.
It’s also wonderfully flexible,with its central arena, for many great occasions.
The Hall was originally supposed to have been called The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, but the name was changed by Queen Victoria to Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences when laying the foundation stone, as a dedication to her deceased husband and consortPrince Albert. It forms the practical part of a national memorial to the Prince Consort – the decorative part is the Albert Memorial directly to the north in Kensington Gardens, now separated from the Hall by the road Kensington Gore.
Thank you to Queen Victoria for deciding to commemorate Albert in this, among many other ways!
On a recent visit to the Churchill War Rooms in London, I experienced in my imagination what it would have been like to work as part of Winston Churchill’s team underground during the Second World War.
As I walked through the offices and passed the displays and spent time in the Churchill Museum, I was particularly struck by the meaning of the words Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
These facts stood out for me afresh:
1) If Winston Churchill had died a few years earlier he’d have been a brilliant failure.
2) He entered office as Prime Minister at the age of 65.
3) His inspirational speeches made a profound impact on the outcome of the Second World War by raising the morale of the nation.
4) He was a difficult man personally, yet he inspired admiration and loyalty and devotion in all who worked for him.
5) We owe our freedom to him.
6) Times were uncomfortable and hard and restricted, yet people accepted it.
7) His speeches move us even now, and we can apply them to our lives even 67 years after WW II ended.
Another thing that shone out was the personal account of Churchill’s secretary – she described what it was like to type out his letters as he dictated them to her.
As someone who has had experience of numerous bosses in this kind of office situation, I thought to myself, He sounds like a nightmare boss. I’d have hated working for him!
And yet those who worked for him had only admiration, devotion and loyalty. One of the comments his secretary made was especially meaningful: “Sometimes what he was saying was so interesting, I would forget to type.”
I would recommend a visit to the Churchill War Rooms to anyone visiting London. It is a profoundly moving experience, which should make you look at your own daily life, and even your place in history, and in this world, with new eyes.
What is your view of the city? Is it a place you work in, and suffer all the stress of commuting? Or perhaps it’s a place you live in? In my novel Zoe emails her sister with these words: Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds… But those words reflect only one biased view of the city; and this isn’t my own view of London, living, as I now do, 98 miles away from it.
I was born and brought up in south London (Orpington in the borough of Bromley) and so London was a big part of my life as a child and a teenager. When I returned from university I moved to live in Bayswater, London W2, with my sister, & continued to live there for seven years. After that I moved away. But last year I decided to visit for an extended periods and visit many London attractions I hadn’t been to for a long time. And those two weeks fed my reflections upon why the image of a great city is so powerful for religious and spiritual writers.
Dr Johnson said, When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. And certainly, London, with its rich history, cultural depth and vibrant life, is a source of inspiration to me.
In the Bible, we find the writer to the Hebrews saying this:For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11: 10)
The heavenly city is a city with everlasting foundations. And a great city feeds us body, mind and spirit. From the BODY – the Tower of London – through the MIND – The Violent Universe show and the discoveries of Einstein at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to the SPIRIT – the Whispering Gallery and Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the Worldat St Paul’s Cathedral, I was inspired, informed, amused, shocked, amazed, touched, and filled with wonder.
Living as I do in Warwickshire, I’m fortunate to have all the treasures of this great city so accessible, via the rail network (not that it’s that difficult to get to London from any major railway station in the UK!) And in many ways, the life of London is encapsulated by the story of the Thames. As Edmund Spenser said in his poem ‘Prothalamion’, Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song.
While looking round the exhibition in the Thames Barrier Information Centre at Woolwich, I felt moved by the human imagination, ingenuity and skill which has worked together to tame the power of the river for the protection of a city and its people. One of my own forbears was a Thames Waterman (as evidenced from a 19th century marriage certificate.) See My Family Background page in my website. My early life was strongly associated with the Thames; the toolmerchant’s business A.D. Skillman & Sons which my grandfather started in 1901 opposite the Woolwich Ferry traded for over 100 years until my brother, who inherited it, finally had to close down in 2002. I remember being sent off to cross the Thames on the ferry to North Woolwich and back again on my own when I was about ten years old, and how much of an adventure it was for me.
But what of that other river – the river of life flowing through the holy city, Jerusalem – a powerful symbol in the Bible? We are told by the writer of Revelation that this river rises up from the throne of God and the Lamb and surges crystal-clear down the middle of the city street. On either side of the river grow the trees of life. This holy city is of pure gold transparent as glass, with a wall of diamond, and foundations faced with precious stones; and the 12 gates are 12 pearls. The city has no temple since God and the Lamb are themselves the temple; it does not need the sun or the moon for light as it is lit by the radiant glory of God.
Why is this biblical image of heaven as a great city so powerful? I suggest it is because, here on earth, all the ingenuity, folly, genius, wickedness, nobility, inspiration, despair, joy and creativity of which we human beings are capable is encapsulated in a great city. In heaven all will be made perfect. And here on earth, just as the city teems with life, so it will be in that holy city. And that is why the image of holy city is so appropriate for heaven.
On a recent visit to David Hockney’s exhibition “A Bigger Picture” at the Royal Academy, not only was I uplifted and enthralled by his art, but also I took away with me several insights for creative writers. Here are five highlights that apply to novelists as well as artists:
1) Working From Memory Frees the Imagination
Hockney does a charcoal sketch in situ, then paints in studio; or he observes landscape, then paints it from memory; or he paints wholly from his imagination. Working from memory sets the imagination free. I can see close parallels here to the work of a novelist; over-reliance on research may produce an interesting novel, but not one which touches the spirit of the age or haunts the imagination for years.
2) Notice the Changes in One Subject Over Time
Hockney went back again and again to exactly the same fixed position in Woldgate Wood, East Yorkshire. He painted the wood in May, July, October and November – each time capturing a different spirit. The same place – transformed over time. This is an essential task of the creative writer; to show the changes in one protagonist made by varying pressures of time and plot and circumstance.
3) Be Alert to Seize the Opportunity That Will Quickly Vanish
Hawthorn blossom appears overnight and can disappear in one downpour of rain. Hockney was alert to the moment the blossom would appear. He called it Action Week. He would instantly be out to paint with urgency. So must we as story-writers capture the opportunity that the creative imagination presents – whether that be a thought that comes during the night or on a long train journey, or in any other solitary moment. It must be captured with urgency or it will vanish.
4) Focus Intense Concentration on One Well-Defined Area
Hockney filmed the landscape through 9 cameras mounted on a grid on the front of his jeep as it moved slowly along. Each frame makes the viewer see the whole differently, by focusing intensely on the details within that frame – helping us to see as an artist sees. This is what a great novelist does in exploring the psyche of one character who touches the spirit of the age.
5) Harness the Power of Rediscovery
Hockney came back to the environment of his childhood, having spent many years away from it, living in California. Separation from a loved landscape only serves to feed the mind as it imagines and reflects. During the four year period spent living in Australia (notwithstanding the inspiration I found in the Australian landscape, the Red Centre, mountains, coast, islands and rainforest), I often dreamed of the English landscape, particularly my childhood county of Kent, or of the familiar streets and locales of my childhood. This is so in creative writing too. If you spend much time apart from something you can now only apprehend through memories, dreams, reflections, your expression of this in any art form will have much greater depth and intensity.