Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Strange Truth

Yesterday was the last day of the Auld Reekie’s International Book Festival and also the first day that I made it over there. Illness and other distractions kept me in Weegieland. But my trip was so worth it.

I went with a friend, bumped into my very own brother and then another friend, and together we hid the last remaining copies of Mavis’s Shoe from any prospective buyer. Not on purpose of course and not once we’d realised what our little huddle was doing. Then, after a brief short story in the Spiegeltent, I abandoned the crew and went to hear Ingrid Betancourt.

Has anyone else had the experience of feeling as if everything that is being said is suddenly massively important? It’s a feeling that makes the colours in the room more vibrant and, of course, you could have heard a pin drop. In that little hour I had that experience. Ingrid Betancourt was abducted by guerrillas while campaigning for the presidency of her native Colombia and spent six and a half years imprisoned in the jungle. I didn’t actually learn the nuts and bolts of what happened to her in captivity, only that it was unimaginably brutal, that her captives were increasingly savage towards her and that, despite this, still she hoped to find absolute forgiveness in herself for them. She is small and slight, speaks slowly and with deliberation, though I suspect sometimes this was true because the questions she was asked required her to dwell on memories that continue to cause considerable pain.

Before taking my writing seriously I worked as a counsellor and specialised for some time in trauma. The kind of counselling I offered often took my counsellee to the very centre of their existence. Does this make any sense to you? It’s the kind of place where the big questions of life roam, where people make decisions that change their lives completely, though their outward circumstances may seem the same, and where people decide the most central question of them all: whether to live or die. Hearing Betancourt talk took me into that strange and most important space where life and death decisions are taken. Most of the audience questions were about what had happened since her release, how she had dealt with it, what happened to her family relationships, how she felt about her captors and their organisation now, and so on. These are important questions because, unless you've lived through something like that, it’s hard imagine how you’d sustain yourself during your ordeal or how life might feel on your release. It’s that central question of so many stories, if not all, ‘What would I do?’ Perhaps we want to be reassured that we’d have the same resilience and compassion as Betancourt, that’d we’d survive with our integrity intact, that we’d survive. That we wouldn’t end up either mad or bad. But the truth is that there is no such reassurance. We just have to hope we never have to face those questions and if we do, that we behave in ways we can live with afterwards.

But for me, being reminded of those existential questions made me feel all the more alive. Something vital was being spoken about and that in itself is refreshing, so I bought the book and took it home. Late last night I read the first few pages and had to wonder whether I was as brave as I’d thought. It was the story of one of Betancourt’s many escape attempts and I had to leave her at the point of re-capture as she is surrounded by several brutal men charged with teaching her a lesson. This is not something to read last thing at night so I stopped. But perhaps the other reason I am drawn to this woman’s story is because I want to see the bottom of the barrel of human behaviour. I’m wondering if there’s a safety in knowing just how bad it can get and that people do rise from the ashes as Betancourt appears to have done.

Reading this also raises questions about fiction, truth being stranger and in this case more powerful. Mavis’s Shoe is about a horrendous real-life bombing episode in which thousands of people were killed, although the real figure is not known. Since writing that novel I continued my research into other war zones and then turned my attention to what happens next. All of this research involved reading personal accounts, many of which were gripping, fascinating stories in themselves. So why fictionalise? Why not just tell the stories? But that’s for another post.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Snakes Alive!

Until recently half the human population of this household was vegetarian, the other half only limited meat-eaters. Our reasons are as manifold as our habits. Of the carnivores, it seems, in the cold light of day, that the bigger the beast, the less likely you are to be eaten in this house; no cows or pigs, very occasionally sheep, chickens often, and fish oftener. Some of us claim a strong interest in Buddhism, famous for, amongst other things, its equal valuing of all sentient beings and therefore its vegetarianism. Mendicant monks, including the Dalai Lama himself, are allowed exception on the grounds that they can eat whatever they are given. If I applied that to myself I’d live on chocolate, booze and thin fresh air.

Following the Buddhist thread, I remember hearing of a large Buddhist monastery in America (I forget the name) who were invaded by cockroaches in big numbers. After many weeks of uncomfortable living cheek by mandible with the only probable survivors of a nuclear attack, and over many increasingly frequent discussion on the subject, the good monks decided mass-murder was their best option. This can’t have been easy. Especially for the roaches.

But it seems these decisions have to be made and everyone draws a line somewhere in the quagmire of moral living.

While in the local pet shop recently, I heard a sound that made me smile. It was the singing of some crickets, or cicadas to give them their prettier name, who were incarcerated in little plastic boxes on a high shelf near the window. I was transported to warm nights in foreign climes, or cinematic moments of intimacy as heroine and hero leave the company of others and step onto the balcony alone together and get to know each other a little better, swooning in the heat. Returning to earth I thought crickets strange creatures to keep as pets. You can’t take them for walks or cuddle up with them on the sofa or let them out in the garden for a run around. You can sing with them, I suppose, compose music around their backing vocals even, but wouldn’t you need a few other notes?

‘Snakes,’ said the shop assistant, when asked. ‘For people who keep reptiles as pets.’

The full horror was upon me. The realities of the fast food chain of life. The foolishness of my reveries. It was chastening to be standing there with flea foggers in my hand preparing for my own mass murder.

But, again, these decisions have to be made and everyone draws a line.

Life, surely, is to be cherished. Does that include bacteria? Is it ok to eat yoghurt? Or to bake yeast into bread? I’m saying yes to both, even though in baking bread I’m killing infinitesimal numbers of infinitesimally small creatures in doing so. And what about all those cleaning fluids that make life difficult for all manner of beasties including spiders, who after all eat flies (yuck!) that otherwise might infect us with those germs? And what about the fact that our body system grows stronger if it is exposed to low levels of bacteria? Bacteria are good for us. That yoghurt is only playing life’s game of one organism battling against another, the yoghurt gobbling up other bacteria in the war-zone of our stomachs.

The genesis of each human life itself is a battle: the ovum secretes vile chemicals in the face of approaching sperm, chemical war-fare of the womb, the survival of the fittest.

And now I begin to scare myself, but to find a shadow of that line I was looking for too. Survival of the fittest seems to me one of the most repugnant popular notions of these post-modern days. It's the lazy alternative and we can do better. Going forth with care and consideration, even cherishing, for other beings as much as humanly possible, seems much more satisfying and carries less risk of hubris. Buddhists try to leave as little trace of their existence as they can, to limit the damage they cause to other life. As a writer of historical fiction this is tricky. As a human being, it's still tricky, but also rather obvious.

To quote one of Muriel Spark's favourite words (apparently) 'Nevertheless' ... where's that flea fogger?

(These and other dilemmas of the tiny world of beasties are a feature of a novel I am working on. You can read the opening few paragraphs on my website.)

Monday, 8 August 2011

Labour of Love not Lost

What a delight! Shortly before Mavis’s Shoe was accepted for publication by Waverley Books last October and I was immediately caught in a whirlwind of fast track re-editing and cover blurb, I was cooking up the latest draft of another novel. This work-in-progress was variously filed as ‘Hopping the Twig’, ‘Strange Fish’, ‘Essentials’, ‘Elementals’, ‘Stranger Fish’ (a later version) and ‘This Book Smells’, (its first title - a warning seemed in order). It was simmering on the back burner while I ignored it and tried to get some distance. The exact distance I took was from Glasgow to the south of France via the airwaves plus the 400 kilometres on my beloved old bike along the Canals de Garonne and du Midi. This took me from the Garonne in Bordeaux to Port La Nouvelle on the Mediterranean, effectively linking the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. Being flat, it wasn’t difficult and took less time than you’d expect, despite a couple of days of head winds and one of heavy rain; nine days in all plus a couple spent with family and then the journey home. I have to admit to some smugness about this at the time, although it’s greatly tempered now by limited exercise since those heady days.

Anyway, in total only two weeks had passed, not enough for any mental distance to have worked its magic. Due to the furore over Mavis’s Shoe it is only recently that I have returned properly to this multiply-named novel. Today I reached the end of my read-through with a tear in my eye. The obvious reason for weepiness is that this book is partly about death and what counsellors (which I used to be one of) call ‘complicated grief’. The tear was eyestrain too, but the main cause was writer’s terror. It is always worrying going back to a piece of work that has been left. There is the fear that you were deluded when you wrote it and that it’s actually not worth the computer chip it was written on and you’ve wasted a year of your life, or more if you’re Garbriel Garcia Marquez or Donna Leon to name but a couple who allegedly take a decade. The tear is for fear unfounded, a sigh of relief, that despite the still considerable editing task ahead, all is not lost and the thing was worth doing whether it is ever published or not. Unfounded fear is a great delight, a variation on ‘Better to have loved and lost’ etc. Only a seriously worried person can experience that kind of relief.

I saw a documentary recently about Peter Howson, the Glasgow artist famous for being brave enough to go to Bosnia as a war artist and being so seriously disturbed by what he saw there that his life fell to tatters on his return. Whatever you think of the whole strange idea of a ‘war artist’ or of Howson’s dark portrayals of disturbing events, he is astonishingly prolific. Apart from a certain commission which seemed to stop him in his tracks for a quite a period, I wonder if any of his paintings ever took a year, and doubt it. And although paintings can take some artists even longer to complete, I doubt there are any novelists who finish a book in a couple of weeks or a day, and if they do, whether it is their best work.

I’m not as brave as Howson and have never been in a war zone, apart from once wandering with a friend through Armagh (I think) in the dead of night and suddenly being surrounded by soldiers with big guns and being asked what the hell we thought we were doing. ‘Hitching,’ I said, wide-eyed and very young, and they escorted us to the edge of town where we erected a tent beside the border post.

But Howson and I share a common subject in war and its effects on ordinary people. Howson, as an artist, takes snapshots which don’t tell stories but suggests them, in the way a poet might provoke an image in a reader’s mind. The beauty of novels is their very length. There may be ugly brutal scenes but a good book will throw them into contrast with hope or generosity or humour then throw you back into despair and on further to disgust or love. You stay with it for hours at a time being moved through all the different experiences a human can have. Quite a bargain really for as little as £7.99 a pop.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Festival Melting Pot

‘Scuse my absence. I have neglected my post for two weekends in favour of two music festivals: the Wickerman near Kirkcudbright in Dumfriesshire and WOMAD in Wiltshire, indie-ish and world music respectively. I have done very little writing of any kind, but this has been just the ticket. When I get stuck and my writing makes no sense even to me, music or visual arts or dance bring me back refreshed. While I’m busy avoiding the keyboard, I wonder vaguely what the word equivalent might be of, for instance, the last movement of Dvorak’s cello concerto (massively heroic tale of tortured love with much horseback riding) or a Joan Miro painting (quirky, strange, elemental haiku or something about liquorice allsorts) or the floor of a festival dance tent (young men trying to catch birds or, of course, big fish, little fish and cardboard boxes.) As I write this, heading north in the train home to Glasgow, it feels like the night before Christmas (only without the cooking and troubling relatives). When I open the parcel of my writing mind, what will be in there? Jewels or just a pair of old socks.

Briefly and before this happens and the writing desk grips me again, here’s a summary of the festivals:

The Wickerman was beautifully formed in size and layout, but the music not very interesting. However its main feature was the friendliness of the people who all appeared to be essentially happy and came from all over Scotland, from the north of England and from Ireland. A cheerful party, it was worth it for the location alone.

WOMAD was far bigger and the toilets and showers nowhere near adequate, so we cheated and bought spa tickets so we could avoid the hour long shower queues while our tent was raided and the booze taken. Lessons learnt. But the music was a fabulous treat with sounds from all over the world and many moods and styles to match. This year’s favourites were Anda Union from Mongolia and Barrunto Bellota of Spain via Eastern Europe.

Honourable mention goes to, who wasn’t playing this year but should have been. Her album Harpaphonics is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I think I’ve ever heard and is played mostly on a nyckelharpa, a Scandinavian stringed, keyed instrument. Let your heart soar.

But I have to confess a bias. Griselda and I are old friends. We were five when we first met but lost each other for a couple of decades until last year. Artists in different genres now, our creative processes and experiences of collaboration have many cross-overs, the needs and tricks that keep us going, the things we put up with for the sake of our work, the joys and so on, are more similar than different. She is collaborating with Juldeh Camara of Ghana, and I with Kusay Hussain of Iraq (more on this another time). We both spent the day before WOMAD losing our glasses and having almighty panics as a result. Without mine I can’t read, so no menus, timetables, operating instructions and all those other essentials of modern life can be negotiated, never mind the reading of great literary works or indeed any actual writing. Griselda’s have still to appear. Mine turned up in my daughter’s tent which I hurriedly and rather tetchily folded for her because she was late (again). Said glasses slipped quietly out of the neck of my tee-shirt into the green folds of her Vango and thence the tent-bag and so to my mother’s house for major tent repair, returning to me via the kiosk of the Grosvenor cinema in Glasgow’s West End where Harry Potter was showing. The logistics of their return were long and tedious so this incident will not be repeated. Meanwhile it pleases me to think Griselda is wearing my old, little-girl-pink, glasses which I took to WOMAD as emergency backup. Glasses, friendship, music and the written word are for sharing.