Thursday, 15 July 2010

A noble cause (2)

Well, my box-maker (see last week) has mellowed. He’s got over his irritation at having to construct such an awkward object – he’s made quite a lot of them, after all – and now he’s sounding much more like the contented craftsman he really is, a man fulfilled by his work. Perhaps on some level I myself felt indignant at the lack of proportion, the asymmetry necessitated by the royal seal; for whose voice could I really be hearing but my own?

It took me some time to understand that what I really wanted to say was that the nobleman didn’t have a monopoly on posterity. Even then, the box-maker at first sounded chippy and snarly (me again?). But eventually I got him to where I wanted him, which was pleased at the prospect of making something which he knows will last every bit as long as the earl’s grant of arms. His sense of self worth is just as well developed as his customer’s, but he doesn’t need the external validation of a title; his craft speaks for itself.

Forthcoming launch dates mean that I can’t yet share the result here, though I will once it’s all in the public domain. But I can thank Olivia Sprinkel, my editor for this project, for reassuring me that I had actually said what I wanted to. As an occasional writer of poetry I find that is not by any means a foregone conclusion. There’s many a slip between a thought and the clear expression of it.

In another part of the forest … my acupuncturist friend (Chinese medicine, June 24) pointed out an inaccuracy in my telling of his story: the person who wanted to give him the job on graduating was the head of acupuncture in the hospital attached to the university; the person who blocked him was the head of department at the university itself.

I’m making the correction publicly (though my friend may think I’m over-egging the pudding) because inaccuracies diminish a story, even if it’s only the teller who is aware of them. The power of a story is directly proportionate to its truth – even in, or perhaps particularly in, fiction, where the wholly made-up story must contain human truths for it to be plausible, to ‘ring true’.

On which note (ringing, I hope), I’m signing off until August 12, when I will return with my ruminatory gland duly refreshed.

Friday, 9 July 2010

A noble cause

By this time next week I have to have written a very short piece about an object in the British Galleries at the V&A. It’s another project organised by the indefatigable ideas wallahs at 26, the national organisation that champions a more inspiring use of language at work (so named for the alphabet, the DNA of language).

26 Treasures is a collaboration with the V&A and it’s designed to explore new, perhaps more creative and less literal, avenues of interpretation. Like all 26 projects it pairs writers with subjects, in this case items in the collection; and like all such projects it involves a constraint, which this time is an inversion of 26 itself – 62 words.

These constraints are a useful device. They concentrate the mind and the vocabulary wonderfully; very often they end up forcing the words into some kind of poetic form; and they make for short, sharp writing projects that seem manageable to even the busiest writers.

Yesterday I went to the V&A to look at my object. It’s a rather unusual document case, made in London in 1682, to hold the royal patent granted by Charles II to the first Earl of Abingdon. What makes it unusual, though, is not so much the contents as the shape. An ordinary vellum scroll would need a long thin box, but this one happens to be attached to a royal seal the size of a large saucer, so halfway down the thin, almost metre-long box is a large-saucer-shaped bulge.

The starting point for almost everything I write is the emergence of a voice of some sort. I need to hear the words being spoken by someone. In this case, standing before the glass case in the gallery, I hardly had time to wonder whether it would be the owner, the maker or the object itself before I heard this: ‘Oh no! Not another bleedin’ patent box. These things are an absolute bastard to make.’ It's true, it must have been a hideously awkward thing to construct, all the nice easy rectilinear proportions sabotaged by the circular excrescence.

Whoever the maker was – and history doesn’t relate – I don’t imagine him sharing much in the earl's delight at his own recent ennoblement. That said, there would surely still have been a craftsman’s satisfaction in completing such a solemn, if strange-looking, object with its fine covering of tooled Moroccan leather, hand-blocked paper lining and shiny brass lock. The story continues to unfold. More next week…

Friday, 2 July 2010

Attention citoyens!

Fixed to a telegraph pole at the foot of the hill below the chateau is a loudspeaker. At irregular intervals throughout the day it emits a two-tone chime like those that precede flight announcements, and then a voice booms out. ‘La population est informée…’ that the travelling butcher’s van is now parked in the village square and open for business, or that the post office will be closed tomorrow for training, or some other indispensable item of civic information.

It’s extraordinarily intrusive, as well as being mostly unintelligible on account of the fact that the amplified voice bounces off the chateau and its terraces, the walls of the Canal du Midi which flows below us, and any other solid surfaces within a fifty metre radius. It’s intrusive particularly because we’re here to write, the ten of us who have come together on retreat at Chateau Ventenac; though it must be equally irritating, I’m sure, for the ordinary holiday-makers staying nearby or moored in their barges on the canal.

Jolted each time from my thoughts, I find myself imagining we’re being summoned to a guillotining, or at the very least a village assembly and a couple of rousing choruses of the Marseillaise. Although it’s only information of a (moderately) useful nature, there’s a distinctly Orwellian feel to the whole thing. If it were to start ‘Attention citoyens!’ one wouldn’t be surprised. And it comes with an image of a prim woman in a khaki uniform sitting at a microphone in a booth somewhere in the bowels of the mairie, waiting for the next official to solemnly hand her a piece of paper.

Then there are the motocyclettes, the smirking, sniggering teenagers of two-wheeled transport, designed surely, with their defiant, hornet whine, for the sole purpose of deafening and infuriating. For all that, the benefits of Chateau Ventenac far outweigh its disadvantages: a building full of character, plenty of shady nooks and corners for working, a swimming pool, a superb chef. We are all managing to write and in the quiet hour before dinner we gather on the terrace with a drink and take turns to read. Then the loudspeaker is silent, the motos are garaged or parked outside bars, and we are alone with our words. That’s what we’ve come for.