Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Thinking about London in India and back again (part 2 of 3)

‘David, are you all right?’ I look up from my desk at work, engrossed in what I was doing I hadn’t heard my colleague approach. ‘It’s just that you haven’t sworn under your breath all day.’

Back in London residue lingers, but as the days become weeks all the usual mess of life reasserts itself. My plans for time to be spent writing slip further into the distance, becoming increasingly more abstract - much like the words themselves. I want to write, but there always seems to be something else that needs to be done.

Every time I sit down at the computer the words refuse to come in anything other than the most disjointed, unsatisfactory fashion. Invariably it is too late at night and I’m trying to cram work into the day’s small corners. It’s not a successful tactic. I write and when I read it through I delete it all again. The page remains blank. I get up early on the weekend and try to make some sort of progress, but the harder I try the more it refuses to hang together and the more head-bangingly frustrated I become. Finally, I grind out a first draft of the first section. It’s okay as a statement of intent, a narration of Brutus of Troy’s discovery of Albion and the slaying of the giant race that lived here culminating with the tumbling of Gogamagog into the sea off the Cornish coast. I make some neat comparisons with the play Jerusalem which I saw, and loved, in January. Then a recounting of Boadicea’s failed uprising against the Romans and the questions of whether she’s really buried between platforms nine and ten of King’s Cross station. It’s okay, but it lacks any real spark. It’s flat and lifeless even when I’ve introduced Harry Noble and Charles Dickens’ soul has arrived in the post. There’s a bit about the election, but not much. I feel nowhere near as plugged into the news as when I wrote How to Lose an Electorate, but I don’t seem able to find the time to jack myself into the system for more than a cursorily glance.

I print a copy out and put it in my bag intending to do an edit one lunchtime. Two weeks later it has instead become a crumpled rumple with a small stain from an overripe apple on the front page. I can’t get any flow going.

I start to ride my bike into work every day hoping that, as well as getting me fitter, it will be a way of connecting me back to the city. The rhythmic pulse of peddling along the streets will draw the essence of London to me, will write copy for me. If only it worked like that. Instead, I concentrate on getting my journey time down which, given that I returned from India with a heavy cold, means every red light directed pause is spent hacking muck out of my lungs and heaving across the handle bars rather than observing the life around me. Plus it gets dull real quick. The most direct route in is straight up the Old Kent Road, a jink through pretty Borough, over Blackfriar’s Bridge and up Chancery Lane. The slog along three lanes of bus , lorry and lycra loon clogged New Cross, Peckham and Elephant is good fitness work, but it lacks charm. There’s little happening here beyond people looking to get elsewhere.

The work-out physically strengthens me up but seems to also mentally weaken me. I lose an hour’s reading every day. Unlike walking I can’t get lost in the ideas in my head. Too much attention has to be paid to cars and, more pertinently, psychotic racer bikers who attempt to mow me down.

It’s not just me finding the election uninspiring. The straight replay of Boris versus Ken with Brian lurking on the fringes and a slightly changed supporting chorus of minor parties fails to even fire up media normally desperate for something, anything to cover. I can’t stand the idea of the blonde mop topped self-important clown prince of politics winning a second term and yet the closer we get to polling day the more Ken seems an utterly redundant figure from the man who he had once been. Scandal after scandal, accusations of hypocritical tax dodging, anti-Semitism, false tears at a video of actors pretending to be Londoners as well as seemingly unworkable election promises make him increasingly unappealing. It’s like there’s an overwritten script in his head which plays out the drama of an election lacking it but there’s no director and no audience. Both Ken and Boris sculpt their campaigns around not being the other. The animosity builds until they engage in a slagging match stuck in a lift without minders in front of Green candidate Jenny Jones and even this absurdity play fails to inspire me or just about anyone else.

More and more I regret not saying something when I had the chance. A few months ago, when I walked past Boris, paused on the side of the road outside the strange bomb bunker-like Eisenhower Centre between Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street. I could have told him what an idiot I thought he was, how all his so-called achievements are either things he inherited from the previous administration or things that have made the city worse. Things like wasting million pounds on scrapping bendy buses and introducing new route-masters, the damp squib of the blue super cycle highways cut back beyond recognition from their original plan, the removal of the western congestion charge zone (leaving aside that I got a fine in its last week operational) and the petty point scoring banning of the drinking of alcohol on public transport like we’re a city of naughty children who just can’t behave like adults. He was perched on his bike, hair spurting through the slats on his helmet, shirt partially untucked, engaged in conversation with a pedestrian. Behind him a car presumably packed with flunkies and aides had illegally pulled over to the side of the road and a taxi was struggling to edge its way past. I should have said something, but I was late and so hurried onwards.

And Harry bloody Noble: what’s he doing in the middle of all of this? Why I am trying to shoehorn a fictional distortion of myself into a blog? Why am I crossing the lines in my writing from one sort to the other? He sits like the proverbial elephant in the room, always just out of sight, fiddling with his lighter and reminding me of my failure to get him read by a wider audience.

Failure. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. Things I could have, should have, done better. Sooner. Quicker.

‘How does it feel to be back?’ someone else at work asks.

‘Oh you know. I’d rather still be out there,’ I reply because it’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to say about holidays, isn’t it? But it’s true. Sort of.

In India I daydreamed about London, but in London, especially when at my desk trying to write about her, I ponder about India. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the reason it’s so much easier to get out of bed at four o’clock in the morning on holiday, free of the wine fog, is because you’re off to do some amazingly different thing and as soon as there’s any sort of routine then the old complaints return. And it’s not as though I’ve found myself in a three week jaunt staying in middle class bed and breakfasts travelling around on a self-directed whistle-stop tour. (I often think if I did actually find myself I wouldn’t like me very much.) But there’s something nagging me about why it took me so long to go to India and how am I ever going to fit all things I want to do into the one life I’ve got.

Over a few weeks, I roughly map out the history of London I want to cover. The arrival of the Normans and the building of the Tower; the rise of the Globe theatre and the culturally creative space that the city creates; Samuel Pepys, the plague and the fire giving birth to a new city; the commercial centre of the docks and the long slow decline from warehouses and cottages to fragile pillars of glass sustained by ambition and borrowed money; Dickens’ own period, the Victorian age and the development of a modern city of public transport and integrated waterways and local politics but at the same time our modern inclination to reflect too positively on the period through some kind of strange Victoriana meta-fictional universe which keeps growing, where real and invented walk side by side re-imagined a hundred plus years later; the long twentieth century’s history of bombs from Zeppelins to the Blitz, from Irish dissidents to a mild July morning in 2005; and finally the endless circle of life and death which makes London both continually new and incapable of escaping its past.

I do some research around old childhood nursery rhymes, the strange phenomena of Springheeled Jack, Gog and Magog’s presence on the Lord Mayor’s coat of arms and the burial of Saxon King Lud under the Aldgate. Coincidentally it turns out to be the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth and so the BBC helpfully provides source material, not least Armando Iannuci’s documentary which I watch whilst ironing and pilfer ideas from. The theft itself discourages me, disgusted with my own lack of originality. The result of this procrastination is that it is all simultaneously too much and also not enough. I’m not even scratching the surface to get it right. There’s no way I’ll be able to accurately represent neither the past nor a flavour of Dickens’ writings in a few short hours of casual reading. But I try anyway and over a week grind out all eight chapters, telling myself that it’ll be okay. I’ll publish them in quick succession and that the different writing format of all at once will be an interesting experiment. The fact that I am avoiding the normal approach to a blog where instalments are followed by feedback which is similar to how Dickens wrote for magazines has a certain irony which is not lost on me.

And all the time, the first draft of the first chapter remains unedited in my bag.

‘I don’t think there’s even one decent sentence in any of this,’ I complain one evening and my girlfriend looks sympathetic, but I know I’m being self-indulgent. And so the page remains blank, the election is two or three weeks away and I am no closer to publishing anything. I am worried that either I have nothing to say or insufficient strength to find a way to say it. I am not sure which is worse.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Thinking about London in India and back again (part 1 of 3)

I have been staring at a blank page for days.

Two months ago, we rattle into Satna, in North Eastern India, just as dawn was breaking. The station was almost deserted in this relatively small and obscure town, a place where anyone arriving and no involved in the production of cement is likely to be on their way to somewhere else, either one of the neighbouring tiger reserves or further still to Kharajuro’s collection of early medieval temples adorned with statues showing elaborate sexual aerobics. We transfer from train to taxi with some rudimentary bartering and an insistence that we do know where we want to go. Outside it is surprisingly cold. I am wearing a fleece and still the iced air pricks at my torso. There is a light frost on the car’s windscreen which needs to be cleared before we can set off with a gentle rock across the poorly paved roads, lolloping with the potholes and uneven camber. The sunlight is turning vibrant orange as it splinters across the horizon bathing the distant trees and mountains in its light. Along the roadside, amongst the litter, mooching dogs and cow dung, men squat down and cluster around fires of burning plastic. Polythene mixed with wood kindling is particularly popular for the speed with which it ignites and the intensity of its burn. They wear cotton trousers holing along the stitching and shirts with burn marks at the cuffs. I feel guilty to be so wrapped up and in a car no less. The driver wears a woollen hat, scarf and jacket the whole way. The heaters don’t appear to work so he wipes condensation from the inside of the windscreen where it clusters around the crack that runs from top to bottom. Between Mumbai pop songs played through the tinny speaker of his mobile phone, he makes idle conversation based around the tourism leaflets which he pulls from under his seat. My girlfriend rests her head on my shoulder and sleeps. I look out of the window and watch the sun continues to rise over the landscape of huts raised on canes above the fields, uniformed school children with the universal trudge but along a road in the middle of nowhere and everywhere people, in the gutter, waiting for passing work.

Outside is a mesmerising landscape but inside my head I am thinking about London.

I am thinking about writing. Specifically I am thinking about what I want to post on davidmarstonwrites. I was disappointed with the entries of late 2011. They lacked cohesion. They seemed too forced, too for the sake of it. Then I had an extremely productive fiction writing spell through January. The blog has been ignored and deserved something special to reignite it.

In May, the London Mayoral elections will take place. I think I write well about London and so it seems an easy win to write about the city, about different areas to before. I began to play around with different ideas and models in my head during the long car journey.

We pass a train of women in brightly coloured saris which match the breaking sun. They carry almighty trunks of timber atop their heads. This chain is spread out by the length of the wood and the stamina of the women. The older and younger clustering at the back whilst the fitter ones stalk ahead. Every time I think we’ve passed them all another appears a hundred metres or so down the road, her hefty load perfectly balanced on her crown.

I consider walking or cycling the north and south circulars combined, or as closely as I can where they become multi-lane arteries, to tell of what I see; to try and understand how living so close to a main road which doesn’t even express you in or out of the city but just ensnares it would affect people. I quickly give up on that idea as not only mildly unworkable but also far too much like a rehash Iain Sinclairs’s London Orbital.

Outside, as we stretched into mid-morning, the upturned end of a school bus protrudes out of a ditch. A scattering of men stand around scratching their heads and looking ponderous, as though it were nothing more than a minor inconvenience. The driver mutters something about taxis being better than buses. There is a shape underneath a blanket on the roadside. We don’t stop.

I consider taking individual areas of London which have significance for me and writing how they came to be and what they mean to me. I think about Bloomsbury, Maida Vale, Highbury, Greenwich, consciously trying to steer away from anywhere I’ve covered before, but I struggle to find enough places with anything more than a tenuous connection. I bore myself.

The driver pulls over at a small roadside shrine. A squat grey stone structure with higgled minarets of towers which a grey bearded man sitting cross legged outside. The old man is wrapped in blankets and he sways steadily as though the rhythmic motion warms him under the spotlight of sun. The driver hands over some small coins as an offering and in exchange he receives a coconut. The shell is cracked on the kerbside, the milk drained into a cup and the sweet white flesh passed through the open window. The driver munches, making satisfied noises, before offering some to us. I am starving having not eaten properly the day before due to a stomach upset, but decline as my gut still throbs pathetically. My girlfriend accepts and happily chews as we crawl up a tightly looping snake pass across the mountains.

History, I think to myself. We are absorbing ourselves in Indian history, why don’t I do the same for London. A big sweeping macro history, from the earliest legends to the twenty-first century. A history of life and death in the city. I still need a hook, a narrative device to transport the reader through time. The obvious solution is to mirror it with the election race, draw comparisons with policies and the inevitable circus performances that typify a campaign for office with the significant twists and turns in the city’s lifetime. That’s not bad, it’s interesting, but it lacks emotion. I need something else, something more personal. I’m not sure where I am in it all.

Ten days later and I am sitting on a balcony overlooking the Udaipurian hills. My skin is dusty from a dry hike during the heat of the day, through forest and farmland, past a sacred cave shrine, the tumbled down village schools and the distant roar of trail bikes in Cheetah country. The scene is calm. Below me stretches out straw coloured grasses cut with dirt tracks along which goats are herded with an accompanying jingle of the bells. The blaze of the sun, suddenly much warmer than in Satna, has dipped behind the opposite hill’s summit, a star blacked out by life.

I am reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, a brick of a novel that’s been lurking around on my bookshelves for years and only by restricting myself to three similarly massive novels, two of which I’ve already finished, have I forced myself to finally dive on in. I’ve never really got on that well with Dickens, finding his voice enjoyable enough but his plotting is somewhat meandering, as though the original monthly instalments format forced him into unnecessary padding whilst he figured out where to go next or to fill up the duration of his contract. I bought Bleak House from a small junk shop in Honor Oak Park owned by a withered spider of an old man in a beige shop coat who, upon discovering me rummaging through the box of books in the corner, tried to sell me more “racey” titles he kept under the counter. I took the Dickens largely just to be able to leave.

Sitting in the evening sun, I place the paperback face down on the metal table and look out at the view again. It’s distracting me from reading, but then so are the thoughts rattling around the back of my head. Davidmarstonwrites, if it is about anything, is about writing and so I need a writing link to the history of London. Many writers set their novels in London, but few can be called quintessentially Londinium except perhaps Dickens. I sighed. I was going to have to brush up on the canon, but I still needed a route in to Charles. What would a writer I don’t terribly care for be doing in the background all the time?

The following day we visit a museum in Udaipur filled with fragments from archaeological digs. I read something I now can’t quite recall, something about receptacles for the soul. A way of storing one after death.

I look up and catch a glimpse of myself in a glass cabinet. Wearing sunglasses I look how I always imagine Harry Noble, the lead character of my still unpublished novel You’ll Never be Joe Strummer, looks. Harry started off as a caricature of myself, a way for me to express my disdain at the world without it actually being me. The longer I worked with him, the more real he became until he gained his own life and voice. He did and said things even at my most extreme I would never countenance, but he always looked a bit like me just with permanently affixed shades.

Ideas rush into place. I’ll write a history of London. I’ll explore the city with a fictional version of myself inexplicably manifest carrying a glass vessel which contains the soul of Charles Dickens whilst also passing commentary of the mayoral election. Genius, I smugly think. That will be a doddle.

Six weeks after returning to London it is late at night and the page is still blank.