If you wonder where I am in 2015, more often than not this is where I'll be. In a converted shipping container in Deptford, alongside the studios of artists, musicians, designers and at least one other writer. Ah, bliss.
Forgive me for spoiling the ending here (though with a film like Distant, there’s really no risk of spoilers because there's barely anything there to be spoiled (this is a good thing)).
It's this film's long, closing shot that will stick with me above all else. Muzzafer Özdemir as Mahmut sits on a bench. (Sounds of Istanbul in winter: seagulls, fog horns, waves crashing.) He's looking out towards the Bosphorus, but really he's seeing whatever he's thinking about; the film gives us clues as to what that might be. There is poignancy – almost a form of intimacy – in watching this actor/character watch things that we can’t explicitly see. And there are the lines and creases and small movements of an incredibly interesting face. He lights a cigarette. The camera zooms, slowly. And that’s it. The scene, in which nothing happens, lasts for more than three minutes, which would be an eternity on the small screen. Books could never do this. There can be hidden depths right there on the surface of things.
Distant was screened as part of a Nuri Bilge Ceylan season at the BFI. Ceylan's latest film, Winter Sleep, has been critically acclaimed. It's in cinemas now.
Boy was I glad to have spotted the £1 Ai Weiwei Exhibition guide on a table in the Blenheim Palace foyer. Without it there would have been no way to be certain which objects were contemporary Chinese art and which were just the odd accumulations of an English manor house.
Most of the crowds making their way around the palace’s ground-floor rooms were not so well equipped. There were no labels next to the works. At first, I was indignant about the lack of effort the palace had made, but eventually it hit me that Ai Weiwei himself must have insisted on displaying the works in this disorientating way.
He had planned the whole exhibition meticulously, after all – from Beijing, where he remains under surveillance by the state, which has forbidden him from travelling. On that backdrop, the lack of obvious attribution can be seen as a political statement, one that mirrors the artist’s absence.
It can also be seen as mischief, whimsy, subversion, almost even as a kind of theatre. That is, as storytelling of the highest order. You provide the story. What kind of duke would install a chandelier so vast that it nearly fills his enormous entry hall? What kind of family would scatter porcelain crabs in front of the fireplace in one of their formal reception rooms? Why is there a funny portrait formed from a clothes hanger above the bed in the dismal bedroom where Winston Churchill was born?
You couldn't do this kind of thing at the Gagosian or the Tate. As a writer, it made me think about the benefits of taking the written word out into the world, as well, in ways that might circumvent the ego-laden establishment of publishers and libraries and books.
Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace is on until 14 December. A major Ai Weiwei exhibition is planned for the Royal Academy of Arts in London in late 2015. No doubt with its own subversive aspects. Photo: Detail from Study of Perspective 1995-2011, a series of photos of Ai Weiwei giving the finger to major landmarks across the world, from the White House to the Sydney Opera House.
Hungarian newlyweds get separated on a train during their honeymoon in Italy. So begins an uplanned journey that runs in parallel with the married life they might have had.
This reissued classic of 1930s Eastern European fiction goes somewhere much darker than that premise (or the novel's evocative title) might suggest. Main character Mihály is both on the run and aimless. And he is utterly obsessed with death. Steer clear if you have no real stomach for depressive lit. But be aware as well that the book's genre-infused tropes and character twists are delivered to the page by an author who is utterly in control of his craft. If you do set off with Mihály and assorted friends and ghosts on this dreary, funny misadventure, you can be sure of arriving somewhere unexpected by the end.
Bernardine Bishop undoubtedly gathered a lot of knowledge about human nature and human relationships during her long career as a psychotherapist.
I would say that she used just the right amount of those insights in this novel to make it satisfying in the highest novelistic sense. This is not a formally inventive tour de force or anything like that, but neither is it lightweight. Indeed, she goes places with this book that many authors would be afraid to tread. This is funny, sad, unflinching nourishment. What surprising things can we learn about ourselves in those moments when it is time to let go of a dear one (or a dearly protected version of ourselves)? That's what this book seems to be about.
Writing is a process, just as making a sculpture or designing a building is a process. In abstract, that’s a reassuring fact, one that can make the whole daunting task feel more approachable, less life-or-death. In practice, however, I often find that it’s no consolation at all. The process can hurt.
For me, the first step in writing anything is almost always finding a startling or evocative image to hang the rest of the piece off. Actually, scrap that. The first step is ignoring the first step and searching in vain for a high concept approach, something really clever, funny or both. This is my way of biding my time (and gnashing my teeth) until the necessary image presents itself.
When I was tasked with writing a poem about a randomly assigned object in the V&A's British Galleries for the 26 Treasures exhibition, I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to get the leopard flagon to talk. Or trying to get its makers (two men from Elkington & Co in Birmingham) to talk. Or trying to get a hypothetical tourist standing in front of the object to talk – offering up some accidental American profundity.
I was listening when I should simply have been looking.
Don’t get me wrong. This object has a fascinating story to tell. Several fascinating stories, in fact. I could write a lot more than 62 words around what I’ve learned about the electrotype process, a patented Victorian discovery that I previously knew nothing about. How this cat came back from the Kremlin as a plaster cast and took a nice long bath in lukewarm cyanide. How the Elkington employees (wearing protective clothing, presumably) hooked up an electrical current to the vat and watched invisible silver particles in the solution begin to magically form a priceless coating across their prize. How they dried it off and burnished its surfaces to approximate the sheen of the original – a sheen that makes the leopard flagon seem to glow, almost golden, under the British Galleries spotlighting.
The leopard flagon does talk. For 126 years, it’s been engaged in a silent conversation with shadows and light. Its upturned eyes, almost invisible until I stood on my toes, were the clue that I needed. They’re like the finger twitch that allows the seemingly vegetative patient to communicate. I followed their gaze and saw what they see, perpetually, a blinding cluster of overhead track lighting.
Sometime later in the V&A café, after my caffe Americano cup had emptied and my notebook had filled up with demoralizing scribblings, that image came back to me as a phrase, as the ‘whole small sky of round electric lights’. At last, I could move on to the next step.
So often, the writing process is like lying down in a room-temperature bath and waiting for someone to switch on the electricity.
I went back to the leopard flagon and had another good look. Any tourist who happened to be passing at the moment I finally peered behind the obtrusive shield (and spotted the overgrown garlic bulb hidden there) could probably write a poem about the sound that spontaneously escaped from my mouth.
For me there’s only one notebook for the times when I need to write things out long-hand (for example, when I’m struggling to crack a creative problem and need to mull it out on the page). It's Muji's super-thin A5.
The size was the original appeal. More space in the rucksack for books and sundries. But it’s become more than that, something akin to ritual. Always the same notebook, always the same ink. Preferably with good quality caffeine. My preferred grey version of the notebook disappeared from Muji’s London shops recently. The sky didn’t fall in, but it does seem to be raining more. Maybe it’s my imagination.
As much as it goes against my primitive, paper-loving instincts to admit this, it happens to be true: these days my most-used notebook is the one that isn’t a book at all. It’s the Notes app on my iPhone. Portability is the key. It’s always there in my pocket, and easy to write in, even while standing up on a crowded train. The new IOS7 font makes my words look fresh and clean, while the smallness of the screen helps keep the mind focused.
Under ideal conditions – a long Tube journey, for example, with no wifi or 3G connection – I’m probably more productive in Notes than I’d ever be on a laptop or with a pen in hand, pensively thinking. Released from the burden and trappings of ‘writing’ something, the words just flow.
Blue jeans, Harley Davidsons, open roads and vintage skyscrapers are all said to be ‘as American as apple pie’ – a phrase that dates at least to the 1930s, meaning all-American. I have to confess I’ve never cared much for apple pie.
Cut open this iconic analogy and you’ll find mostly a lot of nothing. Most people don’t regularly sit down and eat a cliché, even in America, believe it or not.
Here are some words for the pies that some Americans really do eat, though, according to an article in the New York Times this week: cobblers, sonkers, brown Bettys, buckles, brunts, slumps, crumbles and crisps.
It’s poetry, though this is not a vocabulary of pie-ness that many Americans would hold, because most of these words – all essentially meaning ‘a deep-dish pie’ – only get used in one or two very specific parts of the USA.
But these are all deeply American words, all borrowed from somewhere, each linked to heavy cultural things like history, religion, class and race – and lighter things like seasons and flavours.
It’s an example of why America is a veritable wonderland for linguists. And it’s a small example of why American English – whatever that is, and however you try to define it – remains a rich cauldron of linguistic invention and strangeness, much like the country itself.
Obvious caveat: there’s no denying that America has also given us a whole daily lexicon of soul-defeating business terminology. But that’s a different matter. Those aren’t real words. I think most of them were spun out of a computer at IBM.
What I like about these pie words is that they are old, packed with heritage, and yet they haven’t been hollowed out to the point of nostalgia like their common cousin, the proverbial ‘apple pie’. Together, they also stand as a reminder that –despite the up-close view we all get of America now through TV and film (whether we want it or not, often) – there is still a lot that most of us don’t know about America and Americans.
On a more practical level, I don’t know about you but I find it impossible to look at words like ‘sonkers’ and ‘brunts’ without something really quite zesty happening in the way that I use language. Boring business words be damned. Apple pies, too.
Though for the record, before the apple pie was an American icon it was just a food – in England.