Review of Reviews 2014

As the end of the reading and writing year is upon us, I have been considering the content of my various reviews over the past twelve months. What follows is an admittedly lengthy piece but one which, I trust, can be returned to or read in sections: it is a piece that can be analysed in itself, certainly. The collection of sixteen titles reviewed in 2014 forms just a proportion of total reading content in the past year; however, the reviews that have been inspired by these books do offer the opportunity for this writer to further engage with the process of writing. To be better writers we must continue to read, to analyse, and to learn.

What follows is a review of the reviews of those sixteen titles. The salient aspects of each review have been republished in this post, re-worded for greater clarity in some cases, and roughly categorised (anonymising here, for the most part, regarding comment references to particular authors). The intention is that each comment can stand alone as a point of reflection for writers in consideration of their own work.

This review of reviews has been a process of reading, analysis and synthesis in itself. It embraces various short story collections, novels, novellas, and a form of travel-journal. Twelve authors’ works are included, namely: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Diego Marani, Javier Marías, Gabriel García Márquez, Christopher Burns, Tove Jansson, Esther Freud, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Ben Okri, and Bruce Chatwin. The original reviews can be found via the left-hand side bar.

The review points to follow offer this writer some food for thought. I trust that they can do likewise for you too.
• The author tries to deliver as much hook in the first paragraphs of his stories as he can.
• There is an interesting opening idea and we settle down to the potential unwinding of this mystery.
• However, the author’s story is soon cluttered with irritating pretensions of cleverness and, half-way through, a disorientating shift in scene altogether.
• The ever-increasing reading hope that the author’s opening line will, at some point, amount to something fails to materialise.
Reader engagement
• Something may be happening. A reader must care.
• A story not entirely believable might be forgiven (a reader might go with the flow).
• The author exercises skill at immersing the reader in his places, characters’ situations, and in moments in time.
• He has the ability to sink the reader down into the fabric of the book, the place and person in the print.
• Moments of magic realism left unnurtured cause some reading dissatisfaction.
• What we are left with is something that lingers, certainly.
• Of a collection engaging with semi-autobiographical material: we can suspend our imaginations for a certain period and indulge in the idea that pure fictions are present, but at the back of the reading mind is the knowledge of something different taking shape.
• The effect of the story must strike true enough.
• Obscure literary references: some are more easily comprehensible than others.
• Also avoid the relentless and frankly irritating insistence of including foreign language as the primary source of much dialogue, followed by English translations or vice versa (as if to say, grandiosely, ‘look I speak French/am French and how superior I must be’).
• The gracelessness of the exploration is a growing agitation in the read.
• The author’s meandering, sometimes unfathomable writing style jars repeatedly.
• It is the rambling, unintelligible, non-contextual aspect of the author’s writing that is the most bafflingly frustrating.
• Having reached the half-way stage of the book, still so far so possible. However, here the author throws the reader completely. Now, at the start of the second half of the book, we find that the main character is somewhere and somewhen else. It isn’t at all clear what is going on.
• A reader doesn’t often like to be taken from one story and placed in what appears to be the middle of another without forewarning.
• The main character narrates several excruciating pages of pretentious classical-mythological analogy.
• This book is a lengthy poetic indulgence for the author, which might well have been delivered better in more succinct and shining ways.
• Whilst it remains fine to meander, some of the tellings of tales appear, to this reader, questionable in authenticity.
• The author meets and references a great many people in his exploration, with noble attempts at drawing certain individuals with brushstrokes designed at impressing them into the memory, but the net effect is that of a general swathe and flow of a traveller’s acquaintances.
• The author offers up pages of excerpts from his previous notebook travels, some of which provide succinct pause for thought, but the overall effect rather spoils the narrative drive of the whole.
Fictive suspension/flow
• Fictive suspension must be maintained.
• In a semi-autobiographical collection, writing as another gender disturbs the fictive flow: a certain degree of interest is lost because, in the context of the collection as a whole, this just does not fit; the nagging returns as to who is narrating here.
Brilliance and beauty
• Expertly describes bleaknesses and deftly describes raw power and beauty.
• Describes small slices of scenes with colour and delicate words.
• He has the succinct ability to pinpoint a description with a minute but significant object detail.
• The author does offer up moments of linguistic flourish.
• As delicate and as beautiful as an object found on a beach.
• A string of beautiful arrangements.
• In places, sprinkled with beautiful description.
• The author weaves in some beautiful imagery and sensory assemblages of market places.
• There are some small successes in playing with language.
• The author is capable of dropping in a fine and succinct line of thought.
• There are moments of quoted poetic beauty.
• Avoid jamming into a narrative apparent knowledge of the nuances of a subject matter in clumsy ways.
• The writerly device of a character narrating to the author a personal shared back-story tale (memories of place, times, objects) can feel somewhat clumsy.
• Do not set up titles for books by way of contrived conversations between characters.
• There is a proliferation of clumsy similes.
Identity of a book
• Pay attention to the potential for a crisis of identity (what is this book trying to be?)
• One story is confused in its descriptions, place, time, and reason for being.
• What is it that is the heart (not at the heart) of this book?
• The author does not seem to know what this book is: is it some discourse on metaphysical angst, an exploration of meta-fiction, detective-mystery magical allusion, or any or none of the above?
Body of work
• The practice of ‘writing on writing’ (as in building on the body of work), can be a useful device for development of the art form, but the body of work must have an integrity regarding its development (every writer’s quality of output will shift over time).
• A story might be ‘re-purposed’, by altering the title, character names and setting of a previous story.
• A story collection can form from ideas for a novel.
• ‘I had found what I needed to complete the book, what only the passing of years could give: a perspective in time’ — Márquez (the whole process took some eighteen years).
• Characters may be linked across the author’s body of work (there being a penchant for returning characters, as would seem to be the case).
• Names are used in dialogue to introduce characters, or to try to indicate who says what next. This feels somewhat amateurish.
• If we’re to immerse in the voices of characters presented to us, we need to be able to differentiate between those characters.
• Characters, Latin Americans in Europe, spring quickly from the page.
• The author has a penchant for the full name (immediately giving us some sense of a person; some feel for the possibility of a history).
• There are believable patterns of lives, though in sometimes slightly fabulous ways.
• The author seems to enjoy the ‘folding in’ of characters in his stories: a promising opening; offering us place and character and a rough idea of where those characters are heading in the piece; he folds in some extra details to give further colour to the whole, before often folding in further still by delivering some back story details to the personal histories of those characters.
• There is slight irritation in the author’s choices of flat, almost prosaic, character names: Simon, Peter, Mary, Andrew, Neville, Tony, et al (should we place our characters so blatantly in their landscapes by such choices, or can we afford to exercise more in the way of flourish and embellishment in this respect?)
• We bow down to the nature knowledge of one of the characters and suppose that it is true.
• None of the wisdom portrayed is dispatched in a holier-than-thou or preached manner.
• Can a character be seen as ‘a real child’? That is, it can be easy to slip into the trap of writing a child character in stereotypical sugary-sweet form; or, would an average child want to use words such as ‘aristocratic’ in speech?
• It is perplexing that a character referred to as existing on an island does not become in any way concrete for the majority of a book, and does not speak until three pages from the end. That he’s subtly eased off the frame of the page is a little off-putting.
• There are gradual interactions between characters.
• There is a concern though: little love can be shown to either of the main characters by the reader.
• A third character is the pivot, and the author has successfully sketched him in the neutrality that is required in order for the other characters to be as shaded as they are.
• Katri Kling, in her hardness, and Anna Aemelin, in her softness, have perfect names for their characters.
• In short story collections, surround a character by other stories that don’t make him/her jump out sharply from the whole.
• She exhibits a deep understanding of what it is to be child age.
• The author carefully and gradually draws a picture of the main character.
• Such is the author’s skill at writing from the younger child’s perspective (not in saccharine sweet stereotyped ways) that she manages to convince us of the magic of place at the same time as slowly unfolding the frustrating mother character.
• However, more psychological damage should have been caused to one of the child characters as a result of the mother character’s actions.
• Avoid extremely sketched and ridiculous stereotypes.
• The main character presents as a pretentious scholarly bore. Perhaps this is more accurately descriptive of the author himself though: the character and the author seem to share some aspects of their existence.
• The author surrounds the main character with a series of flimsily sketched other characters who mope about and stare off into the evening sky. Those characters are reminiscent, perhaps, of beginner writers’ early attempts at creating believable people: stereotypical, paper-thin, verging on archetypal.
• The author mostly eschews the naming of places and people (on one level, this works in the context of the formation of myth-making; on another level, as a novel-story, this is wholly unsatisfactory).
• Even more curious is that the author then deems it necessary to stamp a nickname onto one of the characters who washes in and out of the tale, and he names another who doesn’t stay long enough on the pages for character examination.
• This book includes a series of characters who are as airy or as liquid as the words the author lays down.
• The main characters mope through the pages of the book and nothing really happens for long, long periods.
• A flow of alternating dialogue — a collection of people and their overlapping conversations — although not difficult to follow, is clumsy in its execution.
• Dialogue here, in its relative scarcity, is unconvincingly poetically delivered: sometimes with torturous lack of reality, sometimes with torturous rhyme.
Sewing up
• Beware of writing that feels like after-thoughts, as a means of sewing up bits the author has neither the wit nor the inclination to think through as he goes.
• The author writes in a seemingly self-conscious manner at times, trying to fill in the holes he’s left, looking to smooth it all over and say to the reader how that’s all been cleared up, let’s move on.
• Avoid late and turgid long myth-tales as meandering excursions.
• The author’s long expositions build without any great pace or urgency to a point of frustration.
Twists and deviations
• Significant twists in some stories only serve to disturb the reader: the slightest of fictive cheating has taken place.
• That we gradually work out a time and place in any given story should work as a reward for our reading and connecting the puzzle pieces: when we’re shifted from that path, rudely as it were, when we’re walking comfortably along in the story’s authority, it risks unsettling us.
• Meta-fiction can be a dangerous game to play.
• When an author rides a vehicle such as ‘language’, a reader will inevitably find his thoughts turning to thoughts on language.
• The problem with the meta-fiction approach is at least two-fold: the reader becomes acutely aware of the writer’s thinking on writing, somewhat drawing the author as character into the piece, and the author needs to ensure everything he writes thereafter is faultless.
• There is consistently something lying beneath the surface in the author’s stories.
• The author’s writing appears to develop from conceptual inception, but the full depth of that thinking on the author’s part doesn’t always shine through.
• There are stories in this collection that aren’t so subtle or are laden and convoluted and which don’t reach the depths to which they might aspire. One, for example, is a messy stream of consciousness affair with no real focus; another is very slight and without great depth; another is a long and somewhat turgid exposition alluding to age.
• This is a tale that attempts to press some deeper concerns into the short- and long-term conscious process of the reader, but which falls short of this presumed target because of the shortcomings of its details.
• The story flows well enough, initially, but ultimately vagueness does not always result in depth.
• A poetic assemblage of no great solidity.
• It is a liquid flow of words which purports to meditative depths but, in reality, delivers a silted stodge to wade through.
• The idea is greater than the depth in its pages.
• There is undoubted complexity, as well as the poetic, and there is an accumulation of detail.
• Readability is let down by the author’s penchant for the occasional long and convoluted sentence.
• Consider syntax word orders of sentences and grammatical structures.
• Straighten out the incomplete sentences that tend to crop up.
• Avoid dense, impenetrable text.
• Markers are placed early on in stories and economically returned to later.
• There are recurring motifs.
• There is, however, a proliferation of partly constructed sentences throughout the book, which does have a tendency to distract the discerning eye.
• The author has presented, in short, a garbled concoction.
• ‘The end justifies the means’ is not a pretty means by any stretch.
• Stereotypical perceptions are to be avoided.
• This work is a fair percentage full of seemingly drunkard-penned ramblings in need of a good editorial savaging.
• It becomes apparent that the author either has a short attention span for maintaining motifs or anchor references in his story telling, choosing to introduce them and then just ignore them, or he has an inability to keep them in check.
• English translations may not accurately represent the nuances of the original language, but this work is peppered with incomplete sentences (the proliferation soon becomes cumbersome and annoying).
• He starts to warm to a new idea (or, if it’s been there all along, it’s been difficult to tell).
• There are clues on the opening page, but those clues are washed over in the reading because they come too soon.
• There is ambition of presenting a long mythic poetic prose tale which is not wholly achieved.
• At times the author’s writing feels like an exercise in poetic thesaurus development: he spins out his idea of the moment in tautological litanies.
• Do not replicate the author’s repetitive listed descriptions, for line upon line.
• Not for everyone: there is no definite plot, no narrative sweep of direction, no main crucible or conflict for the characters to navigate.
• The author’s story is a journey, though one without defined plot. This doesn’t matter because what we’re presented with is a tale of subtle love and frustration, abandonments, confusions, immersions and beauty.
• He spends time on his words.
• There is a predilection for certain favourite words or motifs.
• Precise, cut-glass, clear, clean prose. Hardly anything is wasted in the arrangements of words.
• For the most part, this collection is subtle, well-written, with the feel of care in construction, thought, considerations of structure and texture.
• There are some slender and beautiful juxtapositions in place.
• Juxtapositioning the prosaic and the beautiful can result in unexpected art.
• Sometimes it feels as if the author is crafting a piece, out and out, from a single kernel of an idea or from the delicate arrangement of one notion touched against another.
• There are some very deliberate structural arrangements/filmic qualities, in places.
• A book of love, a sculpting of character, enmeshing of characters.
• A book filled with clean, efficient, beautiful language.
• Despite its lack of plot or narrative direction, this book is built on love — a love of nature, for the island itself, for beauty, for characters.
• The author creates, perhaps with full intention, the overwhelming feel of something cold, winterstruck, and crisp yet troubling.
• There are layers that the author has, undoubtedly, deliberately stitched into this book.
• The ‘sketching’ process is one of the author’s signatures. She uses an economy of words which, for the most part, works well (we are left to think).
• The author’s contribution to the written form encompasses the crisp, the clean, the sharp, and the beautiful.
• One character’s long hoped-for return is a ghost that hangs in the pages throughout.
• Certainly there are ideas here that are worth creative investment of writing and reading, but the author rather spoils their shine with words for the sake of words.
Place and time
• The author’s travels have given him an eye for description of place and how that might feel for his characters.
• The author’s achievement here is to place this book in its own time, imbuing it with its own sense of memory.
• This is a book containing deliberate vast vistas and the occasionally succinct description of place.
Magic and myth
• The author deals with magic in such a way as to alchemise it into plastic.
• The author’s ideas might well be worth magic consideration, but his way of writing on them just brings the reader to the point of drifting off because of a lack of belief.
• A story needs anchoring in belief, even — or especially — if it’s the telling of the origins of myth.
• Avoid clumsy and unsatisfactory endings.
• On occasion, the author ends a story abruptly and seemingly on the cusp of an idea.
• Take care not to let a story peter out: the potential force of the tale fades.
• This collection ends with effective poignancy.

Book Review: The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin)

Whilst Chatwin’s The Songlines (Vintage, 2003; Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1987) is not a story collection as it were, or a novel, it is a collection of tales of travel and study, and so review here seems fitting. Within the narrative drive that is Chatwin’s journeying of the sacred lands around Alice Springs, Australia, with Arkady Volchok — an Australian citizen of Russian descent — there is an exploration of Aboriginal culture, academic study and conjecture, myth and magic. Despite the notion, as quoted of a character known as Titus towards the end of the book, that ‘there is no such person as an Aboriginal or Aborigine. There are Tjakamarras and Jaburullas and Duburungas like me, and so on all over the country’, Chatwin expends much time and energy in the pursuit of what it is to be an ‘Aboriginal’ native of the land.

What results is a book containing deliberate vast vistas and the occasionally succinct description of place: ‘We forked right at the sign for Middle Bore and headed east along a dusty road that ran parallel to a rocky escarpment. The road rose and fell through a thicket of grey-leaved bushes, and there were pale hawks perching on the fence-posts.’ Chatwin’s direction is exploration of the Aboriginal Songlines (the land is literally sung into being), but his journey meanders. However, whilst it remains fine to meander so, some of the tellings appear, to this reader, questionable in authenticity.

Chatwin meets and references a great many people in his exploration, and although he makes noble attempts at drawing certain individuals with brushstrokes designed at impressing them into the memory (such as with the manner of their demeanour or the idiosyncrasy of their attire), the net effect is that of a general swathe and flow of a traveller’s acquaintances. Chatwin accompanies Arkady for a significant portion of the book, the latter’s role being ‘to identify the traditional landowners . . . and get them to reveal which rock or soak or ghost-gum was the work of a Dreamtime hero.’ Arkady is trusted of the Aboriginal ‘mobs’, working to map the land’s Songlines so that the new railway can’t be driven straight through it all.

Chatwin offers an eloquent account of what these Songlines are, as the exploration deepens, and as a thread to follow throughout the pages. He writes, at various stages, for example:

One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every episode was readable in terms of geology.

Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes . . . Certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the actions of the Ancestor’s feet.

By naming all the things in his territory, [the Aboriginal] could always count on survival.

In Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land: since, if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.

Chatwin’s travels to see various important local figures and their ‘managers’, tagging along with Arkady (acting as the hook on which the author can pin his studies), results in a plethora of stories about the land in which they drive. The characters he meets seem mostly reticent but Chatwin is able to relay their songline stories of the Lizard Man, the Tjilpa (native cat), and the like. As with all stories we must sink into them: there is a certain suspension of our learned understandings of the ways of the world to be entered into. Chatwin draws the tales well enough though, insofar as leaving us believing that a man who has never seen the land — which he reels off his learned ‘song’ about — can tell exactly where he is by navigation of the told nodal points of geology and the other nuances of that song.

Chatwin has a notion throughout The Songlines that he never deviates from — it is evident that he has already made up his mind about the assumed preferred state of the human species and now, in the writing, he returns again and again to justifying this idea: we are, he writes, nomadic creatures by nature. Chatwin offers up pages of excerpts from his previous notebook travels, some of which provide succinct pause for thought, but the overall effect rather spoils the narrative drive of the whole.

There are excursions into previous meetings with academics and writers, unearthing thought-provoking oddities such as via Chatwin’s conversations with Konrad Lorenz (the ‘Father of Ethology’), near Vienna, in which it is claimed that ‘war [is] the collective outpouring of [Man’s] frustrated fighting drives’; there are Chatwin’s tales of his love for notebooks (‘To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe’), specifically moleskine notebooks, and how the Parisian supplier could no longer furnish him with them because the manufacturer had died; there are moments of quoted poetic beauty (‘The most sublime labour of poetry is to give sense and passion to insensate things’ — Giambattista Vico).

Arkady departs from the pages for a substantial stretch of time, on business, leaving Chatwin holed up in the town of Cullen, collecting his thoughts and arranging his notebooks.  It is Arkady’s departure to prompt such meanderings, and despite instances as above, Chatwin must fill the pages with something, but the reader feels obliged to skip-read through plenty of these other offerings in order to return to the flow of the main exploration. When we do so, there is the feeling that some of the interactions and ‘plot lines’ may not be altogether authentic. That is to say, there are moments where Chatwin’s text seems all too contrived. Marian, a research accomplice, for example, who transpires to be Arkady’s love interest, and the latter are depicted in one scene, thus:

I heard the noise of the plane coming in to land. I ran across the airstrip and was in time to watch Arkady get out . . .The golden mop of Marian’s hair followed. She looked deliriously happy. She was in another flowered cotton dress, no less ragged than the others.

‘Hey!’ I shouted. ‘This is wonderful.’

‘Hello, old mate!’ Arkady smiled . . . [he] drew us both into one of his Russian hugs.

‘Let me introduce you to the memsahib?’



‘That is a piece of news!’

‘Isn’t it?’ [Marian] giggled.

It is all a touch too Hollywood at the farthest extremity of the book. These minor misgivings aside, Chatwin’s main exploration of the Songlines offers the reader an insight, via the power of the tradition of oral stories, into ways of being and believing, other than our own. Citing Ted Strehlow, author of Songs of Central Australia, Chatwin writes that he, Strehlow, ‘once compared the study of Aboriginal myths to entering a ‘labyrinth of countless corridors and passages’, all of which were mysteriously connected in ways of baffling complexity.’

Chatwin adds that ‘what makes Aboriginal song so hard to appreciate is the endless accumulation of detail . . . structures of kinship reach out to all living men, to all his fellow creatures, and to the rivers, the rocks and the trees.’ Within The Songlines there is undoubted complexity, as well as the poetic, and there is that accumulation of detail. Chatwin’s legacy is, ultimately, to open up a beginning to our otherness of understanding.

Chalk Marks of the Mind


Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

He says.

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)

It’s 1995 or 1996, or thereabouts: I don’t remember for sure. Time has that way of just leaving chalk marks on the mind. I’m standing on a beach some way up the Danish coast. I’m here now, though I don’t know what this place is called. I’m looking out over the water and I can see the Swedish coastline. I’m thinking of the Latvian girl I’ve met here. That night, in the Copenhagen banqueting hall, she knew the games she played.

So I stand here, unstuck in time, and I’m thinking about how time doesn’t unravel in the ways we think it does. We can travel back and forth, but it all gets mixed up. It all stews and bubbles and, when it’s all strained through the holes, what’s left over is thick and slimy, lumpy, persisting in us. It is this to stain the inner skin. It won’t wipe clean.

I turn my face to the wind coming off the sea and here I am some four or five years later. I’m on a beach on the other side of the world, staring out over the Atlantic. I’m north of Salem, Massachusetts. I’m just empty of anything, except the strange idea of trying to peer out over the bend of the planet, three thousand miles eastwards, towards home. It feels odd and unreal being here. The world is small and huge.

A massive wave crashes against a massive rock and diverts my attention. It’s gone dark and then the string of blurry orange lights start to pock the immediate skyline. It’s been raining, I can smell it, and I see the rough lines of the old stone walls of Rhodes Town and the minaret out towards the edge of the harbour. It’s some year or so later. I’m standing on the stones at the lip of the island. There’s a Maltese liner docked nearby. I don’t know where it’s going and I don’t know how we’re going to get home.

Driving by the light of the moon, I’m overcome by tiredness, and I’m woken by the bark of a dog in 1993. It’s Celie, and it’s winter in Dangast, northern Germany. She’s hopping around on the wide empty grey beach, the stiff breeze cutting at my eyes. She must be young. We all must be young. What I still can’t express is what I never knew the first time round: how we would grow, how things would turn out for all of us. Celie’s still with us, and she’s happy in her youth.

I wipe my eyes with the flats of my fingers. It’s 2012 and I’m standing on the grass by the stony beach in Malmö, Sweden. I’m looking out at the long thin Øresund Bridge and at the coastline of Denmark in the distance. Somewhere out there, up the coast, I know I’m looking back at myself from 1995 or 1996, or thereabouts.

Time swills around me, stewing and bubbling, smoothing and blurring away precisions. I strain it through the holes of me, and it leaves just the chalk mark stories on my mind and on my inner skin.

Words of the Middle World at Hammersmith

I’m in Hammersmith where, on the surface world, in the surface streets of London, the place is just one big cross-flow of cars and buses sweeping away to other realms; of people — plugged into phones with screens, or earpieces, e-readers and other distractions — sluicing between the aperture of one opening of the Underground onto the road to another such aperture. It’s a surface tension.

I have time. I emerge but don’t feel the immediate need to fall out into London. I stay in the liminal labyrinth between the tunnels and the street. I need coffee. I need a coffee house. I know if I find the right one that magic can seep, even here. So I reject the wrong ones: the clinical ones, the empty ones, the coffee houses without possibility, whose definition I maybe can’t describe. Here is a place, deep in.  I step inside.

Immediately words accost me. Hammersmith, out of sight beyond, is an anvil of a place: it’s an iron heart with concrete valves; arteries are tarmac-clad and clogged. Here, in the liminal coffee house, odd denizens pause. Where are they all going from and to? Ten million strangers buzz about us; thirty or forty aliens gather in the hissing and the clinking hollow at the very back of this aperture, which spills out onto the street, somewhere. There’s light out there in the city. Here, for half an hour or so, we gather. I watch as I perch at a corner of a seat, taking in a long glass of vanilla latte.

There are drifts of conversations floating up and sinking down. I can’t hear any exactly and for sure. It’s a steam of words, though not loud. It’s at the edge of perception. I should write this, I tell myself, I should. Where’s my pen and notebook? I commit images and inklings to memory: they’re scraps of photos in my head, strips of audio files. Words accost me. They fly about the place; they’re in the molecules.

Hammersmith is a multi-layered affair: languages, accents, skins and sins perhaps, if we believe in such creations. It’s an affair of thousands overlapping. In the coffee house, I see in between the slots of people’s lives: it has this affect, here in the hiss and steam. Out on the street, or on the Underground, squeezed into tubes, we slip by one another, are absorbed by each other’s energies. We’re oiled. In the coffee house, the process of the pause allows the reader of the place to see between the percolations.

Two young women, neither with drinks, talk and take up a sofa and no-one’s keen enough to tell them; an older couple read newspapers with the table pushed right up to their knees, protecting them from dragons or the like; a coven of witches hordes the middle tables, cackling and swapping spells or emails or maybe e-spells; men in business suits are conducting covert operations; there are Italian, North African, Indian voices and faces; some people are hiding from Hammersmith, some are gathering their thoughts or plans or shopping lists, perhaps, some are hatching eggs.

The coffee house is a dark brown and cocoa butter smear, lit in artificial gold and other substances. Words hide here and paste the walls in thin veneer. They flutter because I see them. Other denizens of this place just talk. Words catch in my hair. I shake them free, but some burrow down to the follicles and cling to the warmth behind my ear. I am their route out of here.

Why do you want to leave? They don’t say. I find them still on my skin, after days and washes. My vanilla-streaked glass is empty and the city is calling. I can hear it coming down the concourse in strands of breeze. At the counter I offer my empty glass back to the man with the thick Italian accent, but this is London and it stands unattended to. I pull on the rucksack that’s been blocking the way to the witches’ circle.

The threshold to the concourse might well ripple as I step back into the other realm. I’m through it and the colour and the sound and the taste of where I am, a few inches beyond, shifts immediately. Through the plate looking-glass window I see the dark smear and its exotic array of denizens therein. I’m peering into an otherness.

I wait just a little while before Hammersmith sucks me to the street, and the place outside explodes around me. I push my way back into London’s surface tension. Words stick to me, here and there, pressed against my skin. Perhaps they’re shivering.

Writing on the Move

The road, or the tracks, or the air, or the sea, all of these, make words more immediate. I’m on the move, soon enough. We’re comprised of moments and of journeys, which are process rather than product. A fellow writer I’ve just recently made contact with sent me skimming through old notebooks looking for certain words: give me poetry, he said. Notebooks are full of words laid down in the process of moving: poems and scraps, the notes of the journey itself, people and ways of seeing, sketches of characters barely formed come to the scratched ink surface.

What makes the words of notebooks laid out like this so immediate? Just as the impressionists painted the light, there and then, in media res, in the midst of things, so too are the words on the move so much — what? Purer? Refined? Raw? It’s the rawness of the pen or pencil marks, the movement of the lurch of the mode of transport, the seaspray on the pages, the crumpled edges that make the words . . . more.

I’m wandering through times gone by: I write on the Greyhound bus, from Boston down through Harlem and Manhattan, spiderwriting (it’s difficult to see in the process, as we travel back north by night, a single light above my head on the back seat); I write in the air, always in the air, compressed but needing to write out the journey; I write on the ridiculous lean of the high speed train from Malmö to Stockholm, making myself sick in the process; I write in between flights at airport concourses, sat in bus terminals in Basque country, in little rooms in the former East Germany, in the Danish wilderness, somewhere in Paris . . .

Writing in the mind, whilst travelling, is spiderwritten too. When the notebook isn’t easy to reach, or when I’m travel-filthy and tired, I watch. I think of words I will write. The process needs to be caught. There is no product because it shifts on each new reading, years down the line.

I’m on the move because I need to move, and because moving is a way of finding words too. It is the rawness of the wind and the air, of the light and the day, of the hunger or the cold, or the heat or the night, all of this, which give the words their rawness of edge.

Rise and Write Against the Photographic Hegemony

A writer’s eyes are the only camera lens he or she needs. This morning (a clear warm day in December, where the mist rose off the dips in the hills by the side of the motorway), I drove and turned off that part of my brain that tries too hard. Its place was taken by my writerly camera obscura, that box I am: the image of the landscape projecting itself onto some screen inside me. Writers have no desperate need for the physical camera, I’m proposing.

Years ago, whilst in the huge open plan architectural studio with our tutors, who were dressed head to toe in black, smoking thin cigarettes with their legs crossed and with artfully mournful expressions wafting from them in great deep sighs, we were advised not to succumb to the ‘Kodak spot’. On field trips we were frowned upon if we dared take our cameras anywhere near the worn-down spot that ‘tourists’ chose. We were young: what did we know? We took our photos on clunky old pre-digital machines, amazed by the view over the Seine, or by the fact that we were drinking beer in Frankfurt’s old town, only thinking we were artists. Our tutors must have shook their heads in disdain, that night, every night, drinking wine in their black turtle-necks and leather brogues, sat in some back street bar listening to Georges Brassens. This is how I imagine them, at least.

Now, my art has shifted. Artists don’t die, they just shift conditions. Someone wrote this. I forget who. Shifting, shifting, and stories now come of travel . . .  

I was in New York City the year before the Twin Towers came down. We walked down Wall Street, a deep channel where the air floods through like a giant air conditioning system. We found ourselves at Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Seventeen months later and the air conditioning system was deep in ash.

In Turkey, dizzy from the sheer claustrophobic heat of the day, stupefied by the mad intense spin of the huge and canopied bazaar, my travelling partner and I heard the door of an empty carpet seller’s shop shut quietly behind us.

Once, in Barcelona, I sat and watched my Spanish friend just melt as he listened to the voice of an Argentinean waitress in a bar off La Rambla. He told me I would never know the beauty of her accent.

Another travelling partner and I paid homage to Jim Morrison: we trekked our way up to le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris and found a small bead-festooned and squalid shrine. We weren’t alone.

At Freetown Christiania, in Copenhagen, I sat on the sparse wooden boards of a little house. We were crammed into a small upstairs room. Outside, we’d walked down Pusher Street to get there. I smiled at mischievous old hippies who, with some small yet tangible amusement, explained to the assembled group of pilgrims that the town was not one built on the foundations of worship at all, despite its name.

In Venice we chased the golden floats of the festival parades down the Canal Grande, and there were people strung along the quays and bridges and stood on the ramshackle tiny wooden jetties, all under the aching white-blue eggshell sky.

We live in modern times, I appreciate: we have the photograph and we have the capacity to ‘film’ all that we see. These objects created often do evoke a remembrance of experiences past; yet they are always framed. What exists beyond the frame, we will never know. Photographs and other digital recordings won’t ever capture and preserve a time and place the way that words can.

Only words can evoke the mad euphoria of a Venetian parade; the clammy uneasiness in a small room in a Danish ghetto; the sad peace of a Parisian graveyard; the utter hypnosis of love, of sorts, in a Barcelona backstreet; the surreptitious click of a door and the taste of iced tea, in forty degrees, in a Turkish bazaar; the cool portent of wind on Wall Street, one April before the world changed.

A picture can tell a thousand words, it’s true, but a thousand words can break the edges of the frame.
This article was first published, in part, at under a pen name.