Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Spools Turning

Because I need as much focus as possible to write the new book, I have resigned from the management committee of wonderful Scottish PEN. I think I'd be more useful doing more directly practical things like organising events and I'll still do the 'Rapid Action' letter writing for writers who are imprisoned.

For those of you not familiar with Scottish PEN or indeed International PEN, it exists to defend freedom of expression around the world especially in the written word and specifically for writers. Scottish PEN is a fantastic organisation run entirely on the dedication of unpaid staff, all a superb community of writers. Both Lui Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Prize for Peace last year, and Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the prize for literature, have served as PEN presidents in their countries, China and Peru respectively, although sadly Lui Xiaobo was in prison and unable to attend. For more information about Scottish PEN please check their website.

I am including in this post a flash fiction which was first published in a pamphlet of writing from workshops run by three PEN members including myself during the Document 8 International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in 2010.

Spools Turning

Xing Pi was a film director. He lived in Chiwanrea and made films about the stories his parents and his grandparents told him as a boy, stories about the village in which he lived and the artisans and monks and holy women who lived there too.

Then one day the police came and took away his notebook. The next day they came for his computer and the day after that they broke down the door, threw him to the floor and dragged him out to their wagon by his feet. Xing Pi’s wife was lucky she was not there too and, hearing the news, went into hiding in the mountains.

Xing Pi did not know where she was. He did not know where he was either and soon he did not know what time meant. He knew space and could judge how close he was to the walls he could not see by the sounds they echoed from his clicking fingers. He knew from first taste whether his food was safe to eat each day. He knew where his skin was because it hummed with bruises and sores, sometimes so clearly he could almost hear it.

A year passed in darkness but in that darkness he played all the films he’d ever seen, all the films he’d ever made and all the films he’d make as soon as he was out, because he was sure one day he would be. Flick, flick, flick went the stills on the wall and the pictures shone out with the stories of his life before and his life in that place. Tales began to grow out of the sounds beyond the walls, someone wailing for peace, the guards joking about women, the uneven tread of one of them outside the door, the same man on his journey home through the cotton fields, past the grazing oxen and through the noisy town. Until he comes to his home and finds the police there waiting.

Ling Joo was a poet. He lived in ….

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Bare-Naked Resolution

This is the view from the huge floor to ceiling square window in Cairnoch Lodge, a little holiday cottage where I spent the week between Christmas and New Year, far from the maddening crowd. The thing I want to draw your attention to is the right hand branch of the left hand tree. Does it strike you as odd? It strikes me as eccentric but I’m not sure you can call a tree eccentric. I’m not keen on stories in which animals take on human characteristics and it seems three times worse to do it to trees, even if I’m only suggesting a tree might be eccentric. It does seems a peculiarly human thing to be. Though of course cats are too. All cats are eccentric, in my opinion, which makes eccentricity normal in the cat species and it makes cats, as a species, eccentric amongst animals. But I digress. You’ll no doubt have felt my confusion.

Perhaps what I’m saying is that the natural world is wonderfully varied, even in our own backyard or the backyard I borrowed, as in this case. As a resident of Scotland I find Scotland beautiful but not exotic or unusual. It's too familiar. But it is varied and this tree seems somehow extra alive with that strange ‘arm’ stretching upwards in a peculiarly rhythmic shape, like the movements of a dancer or the line of flight of a small bird.

Winter is the perfect time to examine our trees for eccentricities. The gush and splendour of new leaves in spring (see earlier post) has not yet arrived to cover up their strange and twisting bodies. And here I’m reminded of the artist who photographed ordinary people in little or no clothing in simple settings. Without the homogenising effect of clothes we are all distinct and beautiful. These portraits made everyone look oddly vulnerable. And eccentric. Eccentricity is a good thing I think. I wish I could remember the artist’s name. There was an exhibition going round about eight years ago I think. A brief search on the internet was as dodgy as you would imagine it to be.

On a bus journey this week from Inverary to Glasgow I was treated to still more oddities of the tree world: five deciduous adult trees clustered so close together their roots must have formed a woven blanket (close-knit family?); trees growing out of the floodwaters of Loch Lomond like reeds in a river; branches the width of elephant legs snapped in two by the ferocity of recent storms; a fallen giant amidst an army of giants, the others all still standing tall; two men with chainsaws beside a stack of thick discs sliced from a trunk, like a pile of cakes two foot wide; twigs, sticks, branches of all shapes and sizes littering every field and grass, only the roads being cleared.

Meanwhile, of course, the human population is feeling a little stripped back to its roots by the ‘recession’ and by the austerities of January after the excesses of Christmas. But some of it is deliberate because of RESOLUTIONS. The idea of resolutions is surely to strip ourselves back and get more focussed on what matters, to behave better, give up things which harm us, make this the year all the right things happen. Done the right way we strip ourselves back to our own special core and build from there, perhaps growing in new directions with the elegance of a small bird's flight, or the quiet strength of a tree or even the ferocity of a winter gale.

Meanwhile, in a dark room near you, I am sitting here creating a whole new structure for the life of Lenny Gillespie of Mavis’s Shoe fame. To begin with it looked like the five tree cluster with the various characters all standing round one another, but now some of them are being thrown about by the wind, all of them are growing before my very eyes and one of them falls in a place no-one sees.

This is the same time of year I began Mavis’s Shoe. There is much I don’t know about the history and background of the period I’m writing about. Mavis’s Shoe was written in a frenzy of researching and writing and writing and researching. It looks like writing the sequel is becoming a similar process and in the absence of time to do anything but write, I too am like the trees stripped back to their essential peculiar selves.