August, 2016

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Perspectives

I am spending more time on photography than I was expecting to. And I have been thinking about perspective. I’m still using a camera with a fixed lens (ie no zoom) so if I want to change my perspective, I have to move. And it struck me that this is an analogy for life. If we want to change our perspective, we have to move from where we are. Otherwise, we will only see the same thing whenever we look.

In fiction, perspective matters a lot. As a writer, you have a number of choices. First person – ‘I ran.’ Second person – ‘you ran.’ No, don’t do that. Please just don’t do that. Third person – ‘he ran’. And then there is tense. ‘I was running towards the gate, my arms reaching out to catch the baby before she fell.’ Or ‘I am running towards the gate, my arms reaching out to catch the baby before she falls.’ One has happened, one is happening in the moment. Both perspective and tense change the feel of the story and how we relate to it. Some books mix tenses and perspective, sometimes effectively, sometimes annoyingly. One author at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was adamant that ‘you should only ever use the first person singular if you have a very specific reason to do so.’ And I realised that over half the books I had read in the previous few weeks were written in that tense. Writers have  as many different perspectives on their work as much as in any other occupation. And the Book Festival has been invaluable in hearing different perspectives.

The other beauty of fiction is that it can help us to challenge our current perspective. We are forced (albeit willingly) to adopt the perspective of someone else, someone who will never share the same views as us. Even an autobiography will show a development in the author’s views over time. We are not the same person at 40 as we were at 20. Now I have to accept that ‘living’ a life through a novel is not the same as actually living that life. There is only so much that can ever be put into a character in a book. And yet. There is evidence that visualising something mimics the experience of doing that activity, not completely, but at least partially. Athletes know this well. My favourite example of this is Michael Phelps. During one race, his goggles began to fill up with water and he was unable to see properly in the water. He closed his eyes and kept going, executing perfect turns at exactly the right time. He set a new world record in that swim, because he visualises the perfect swim every night, then tries to perform it the next day. When trouble struck, he already knew what to do and simply performed what he had already seen in his mind (and practiced so often).

Some of the books that have had the most memorable impact on me are ones where I cannot now remember the character’s name, but where they gave me a different perspective on something I had no experience of – and in most cases, never will. I remember the feeling of being that person for a while. Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home is a good example of this – a woman loses a baby she has longed for and finds her marriage at an end, and is surprised when she finds love with another woman. The book is not preachy, it just gives the reader a different perspective. I think part of the enduring impact of religious works is their attempt to give us a different perspective on our lives, on our relationships with each other, and to think differently about our place in the universe. Books can educate, entertain, and they can offer us a different perspective on life.

So back to the photography.

Here is a really boring street, the kind of one we walk past every day without paying any attention.

Day

And here is the same street at night (two variants – neither manipulated by me other than by waiting for the sky to darken even more so the orange would dominate the scene).

Night 1

Night 2

Harder to walk past without noticing. Unsurprisingly, I took the evening photos first as the scene caught my attention immediately, then went back days later to take another shot of the same street during the day (which I will now delete, as it has no value other than to illustrate the point!).

And here is a bridge – three perspectives, all of them having a slightly different impact, just from taking a step forward or crouching down.

Bridge 1

Bridge 2

Bridge 3

We will not change our perspective and learn to see the world differently if we are never prepared to move from where we already are. We already know where that is and what it looks like. It might be better or worse from somewhere else, and it might well be uncomfortable, but we will learn something in the process.

The power of belief

The older I get, the more I am struck by the power of belief.

We have just had another few weeks of the Olympics, when we can see the difference belief can make between elite athletes, all of whom have trained not just their bodies, but their minds to be able to perform as well as they can, even if on the day, not everything works out quite as planned. Watching the closing couple of miles of the marathon, you could see that there was as much belief as physical stamina getting the runners to the finish line at the ridiculous paces they run at. And seeing Kipchoge speed up at the end even when he was never going to be caught was something else.

Some of our beliefs are grounded in experience. I believe that I can drive a car safely from A to B because I’ve done it a thousand times before. I believe that there will not be someone else on the road driving dangerously and forcing me off the road, because otherwise I would not get in my car in the first place. It’s not something I am conscious of when getting into he car, but it’s a subconscious belief nonetheless. I believe I can run a marathon (just not at the moment) because I have done it before; I also know that the facts speak against me doing one at the moment because I have had a few weeks off for summer.

I certainly believe in the power of inspiration. Watching runners in the Olympics gives me an additional impetus to get out there and try a bit harder. When running up my final hill yesterday, at one point, I thought, would Kipchoge be cruising along at this pathetic pace? – and I made a bit more of an effort. I use that kind of inspiration frequently when I’m running, saying to myself, right, for this bit I’m going to run like a Kenyan, then I take off and it feels different, even if the reality that I am not a Kenyan and can’t keep that pace going for much longer kicks in sooner or later. But it helps me, and I do not believe that I am literally an elite Kenyan runner, so for me it is an entirely positive source of inspiration and an amusing delusion for a few minutes.

Inspiration comes also from listening to other people – and having a notebook with me because if there is one thing I have learned it is that I might believe I will remember what I heard, but the facts speak against it. I never remember it.

We are in the middle of the Edinburgh festivals right now, which means a combination of actors, writers and dancers, all sources of inspiration

We went to see Austentatious, where the cast put on a different play each performance, based on a random title from the hundreds of suggestions the audience scribble on pieces of paper as they come in. All in the style of Jane Austen. It was amusing, but also educational for me, because I spent half the time working out how I thought they must do it, given the cast do not confer when they are in the wings (you can see them pretty much all the time) and the scenes unfold effortlessly.

And then there was Scottish Ballet doing Crystal Pite’s Emergence. The audience’s opinion seemed to be divided because Emergence was the second of two pieces they did, the first being an all-male one which was powerful, brutal and, at times, disturbing – not for everyone, I suspect. It was remarkable to see the versatility of these dancers who would normally be performing more classical ballets, but this was Scottish Ballet, and they do even those classical pieces differently, as recently witnessed in their version of Swan Lake. If you have no interest in dance, but might be willing to go to see one production in your lifetime, go and see them perform Emergence. You might find you were wrong about dance. The whole piece is based on the activity of hives of insects, with the dancers’ limbs twitching at points in unison, incredible body shapes inside a tunnel that is the entrance to the hive, and a simply stunning part where all the female dancers dance/march slowly forward in a long line, forcing back the males until one of the males tries to break through, and the line suddenly flexes around him and creates the most amazing movement of eighteen bodies moving as one. It’s also possibly the only time the whole company (37 of them) will be on the stage at the same time, and what a difference the sheer number of them makes in this piece.

Scottish Ballet

(This is Scottish Ballet’s photo – I hope they will not mind me using to advertise them!)

And now for the authors. I decided to mix things up a bit this year and go to some where I have never read any of their books. I’m nowhere near finished yet, but these were the first three:

AL Kennedy was amusing and made every effort to tell us why we really would not enjoy her latest book. It’s long, and it’s all about two people trying to get together for lunch one day. Maybe not on the top of my reading list then.

Billy Bragg sang some songs and got himself into a spot of bother with some comments he made about Jeremy Corbyn. A great hour and then some more as he was in no hurry to finish on time and there was nobody coming after him, so he just kept going and sang some more songs. His comments on songwriting versus novels and photography versus paintings gave me a different perspective.

Sometimes all you need is to stop your mind whirring so quickly and sit and listen. The big events at the book festival are of necessity held in a large tent with rows of seats to get as many people as possible in. But when you get something in the Spiegeltent, it feels totally different, especially if it’s early on a weekend and not so full as the more riotous evening events (so I’m told). Sitting around tables, listening to someone read from their latest book and talk about all the things he learned as he wrote it, as well as a bit about the process he goes through, all fascinating. And in amongst it were some prompts that I realised I could use. I ended up writing one abbreviated scene during the event that fitted two of my characters perfectly, based on a throwaway comment he made. And I bought the book – Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson – on the basis of that hour, and the fact that his main character disappears to Berlin one day. I want to see how he deals with that and the story sounded good. Plus he’s another apparently brilliant writer I have never heard of. I’m trying to find more of them.

Festivals

So much for inspiration.

When it comes to belief in general, I find there’s always that question lurking in the background. What happens when the facts collide with something I believe to be true, be it politics, religion, human interaction, or a host of other possible sources of pitfalls.

I changed my political viewpoint a few years ago when I looked not at what I assumed the various parties stood for, but at what they actually stood for. It turned out that what I thought (believed) was important was most closely aligned with a completely different party than I had expected (believed). The more I looked into it, the more I realised that I had been operating on a false set of beliefs. The facts changed. My opinion changed. The same with religion.

I start reading every book with an expectation (belief) of what I will make of it, what I might end up taking away from it. And I am invariably wrong, because I am basing my expectation on zero knowledge of the book and, sometimes, the author. And the more I read, the more I realise that my viewpoint on almost everything is changed by what I read. I understand different perspectives much better, can begin to feel what other people must feel like in situations which I will never find myself in. And I get to live as many lives as books I read. That’s a pretty good deal.

The attitude I hope I aim for in challenging what I believe against the facts is encapsulated in something attributed to John Maynard Keynes, even though he might never have said it. But I think it is still right.

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?

A city of two tales

We all tell ourselves stories about who we are, based on how we interpret what we have experienced in our lives. Cities tell themselves stories as well, I think. And Berlin seems to remain two tales of a city once divided, but always changing when it can, creating a third tale in the process, one that is still being written and which will perhaps never be finished.

In the Eastern part of the city, many of the old street names are still there. Karl-Marx-Allee is still a wide boulevard stretching out from the city centre, a testament to the period after the war before Stalinist architecture (and his name – it was Stalinallee for a while) was replaced by pure functionality, the high rise blocks we still associate with the old Eastern bloc. Heroes of socialism are still remembered. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht are just two of the home-grown variety, but South American revolutionaries and artists also have their place:

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Personally, I am glad these names have remained, they are part of the history of the city, the country, and indeed of some of the titanic struggles of the 20th century.

And you cannot think of Berlin without the occupying forces stationed there for over forty years after the war. They have left their mark in more than Checkpoint Charlie. In the Eastern part of the city, there is a huge war memorial with around seven thousand Soviet soldiers buried there, the whole construct a story in itself.

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At the entrance (right at the back of the picture above – this is a big memorial), there is a kneeling soldier on either side, a father and son, representing the two generations who fought in that war.

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Along both sides are large stone tableaux narrating the story the Soviets told themselves about the war, with a collection of sayings from Lenin and Stalin (the latter interestingly not removed when his ‘cult of personality’ was denounced by his successors), in German on one side and Russian on the other side. Brave Soviet soldiers defending their homeland, defending freedom, overcoming the tyranny of fascism, that is the message we are to take away.

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And towering over everything is the soldier with a child in one hand, a sword in the other, and a crushed swastika under his foot. If you are going to symbology as part of your propaganda, do it on a massive scale, that seems to have been the approach taken.

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…and the detail of the statue:

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This was where school children came to be taught history, where East German leaders came to pay homage to the army that had paid their price of their freedom. Needless to say (but just to give a little balance to the story the Soviets were telling in this memorial) there was no mention of the horrors inflicted on the German population when the Soviet army was moving through former German territories, or the extremes their barbarity reached when they finally conquered Berlin, most of it meted out on the women and children left there.

The other tale that is still represented by a physical memory is the whole Cold War that ensued. This time we move across the city to the far West, in the hills of Gruneberg forest. Did you ever wonder what happened to all the rubble of the city that had been Berlin before the war? It ended up here. An entire mountain was created out of the rubble, now covered in grass and trees and meandering paths. And a CIA listening station was built on the top of it, making use of the flatness of the surrounding territory and the relative proximity of West Berlin to the Soviet Union.

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After the Wall came down, there was no longer the same need for this military complex and the towers and buildings started to fall apart.

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There are now rooms where the old ceiling panels are stacked neatly in rows, although for what purpose other than a deep-seated need for Prussian order escapes me. The domes at the top of the towers are fascinating. You need a torch (mobile phone came in handy) to get to the top because there is no lighting in the narrow, pitch black, stairwells that eventually take you up to the top. But when you get there you suddenly notice that every sound you make reverberates around for seconds afterwards, even with parts of the original domes torn off. The acoustics are almost unnatural.

But this is Berlin, so anything that you aren’t keeping a close eye on is likely to change before you notice it. And this is the other tale of the city. This former secret (apart from the fact you can see it for miles away) installation has been transformed. There is now art everywhere, and not just in the two floors of street art:

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In was there in the form of old cars…

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…chairs and the odd bath tub (and I’m pretty sure the CIA did not paint that tower pink)…

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…and pretty much any space on a wall that was previously uncovered…

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This one was across one half of the largest and tallest dome – it was so large I could only capture part of it:

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This is what happens when a group of people in Berlin get together with an idea and get hold of something which nobody else wanted any more. It is just as much a part of the history of the city than the formal memorials and, to my mind, a much better representation of the city that I know.

And I will leave you with the wisdom which was offered to us:

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What we see

There is no doubt in my mind that I notice more when I am wandering around with a camera. Even if I am trying to get somewhere rather than just walking in a random direction in a city, as I tend to do on holiday, and even if I end up not taking any photos, or not being happy with any of them, I will still have been conscious of a lot more than if I don’t have that constant search for a photo in the back of my mind.

So, with that in mind, here are some things I saw in Berlin (and Poland) these last few weeks. I hope that none of them count as tourist snapshots.

I love my geometric shapes:

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This man was playing in Wannsee last year and was still there when we returned this time. I just wished we had longer to sit and listen to him.

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Yup, repeating patterns… I love them.

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Tree roots by the lake where we stay. The trees are all perfectly happy and healthy:

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Buildings like this are built for people like me:

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My eye was drawn to the lovely curves of this structure (whatever it is!):

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Almost symmetry:

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Another building designed for me:

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And another – this time in Szczecin (Stettin) – this is in the Philharmonie building.

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They do not build bridges like this any more:

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Some forms of transport look better than others:

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And some have a story attached – this bike was part of commemorating the 25th wedding anniversary of a couple who were doing a bike tour with the two witnesses from their original wedding. They all came back to where they had been married all that time ago, with these lovely balloons adorning their otherwise very functional bikes. We just happened to be passing.

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Local talent

Sometimes the most obvious things are the ones we fail to notice. And then the universe gives us a kick up the backside so we get the message.

A cousin kindly forwarded me a plea for male readers for a radio programme audience (if you go to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, you will notice the male/female ratio for most events, which explains the gender-specific request for the radio show). I had no idea if I could go but I ordered the book anyway. In the end, we were busy that weekend so I never did make it, but I started to read the book…and resurfaced a couple of days later.

Then a few days later, as I was driving home, I passed by The Edinburgh Bookshop. It’s a wonderful shop, tucked away at Holy Corner in Edinburgh (for the non-locals, it’s called that because there is a church on all four of the corners of the intersection of two roads. I know this well because I have to prove it to one member of the family or other each time we are there.) It’s also where the girls used to go to an after hours book club for a few years so we have a particular affection for it. With hindsight, I should have pulled over and stopped to take a picture, but it was late and I was hungry and probably late for picking up from a dance class and there was a car right on my tail, so I kept going despite knowing I should just stop for a minute. The entire window was full of books by one author. The same one whose book I had just read.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell.

Maggie O'Farrell

 

Maggie O’Farrell was a name I had heard of, I knew she was an author, but that was about it. I couldn’t have named any of her books or told you anything about what type of books she writes. The sad fact is that the same is true of most authors – I haven’t even heard of them, never mind knowing anything about them. And on investigation, it turns out she lives in Edinburgh and she only won the flipping Costa Novel Award (now I was feeling really bad – I didn’t even know that).

I wrote last week about learning from these authors. Let’s look at one of her characters for a minute. Meet Iris.

Iris walks along the street, keys in one hand, coffee in the other.

Right. This is not fair. In one line, I have a picture of Iris. In just one line. I just stopped reading at this point and decided I needed a break. When I had gathered myself again, it got better.

Iris walks along the street, keys in one hand, coffee in the other. The dog is just behind her, claws tick-ticking on the concrete. Ladders of sun drop down through the gaps in the high buildings and the night’s rain is vanishing in patches from the pavement.

So that’s how you do description. I was taking a lot of mental notes by this point. Next page. One scene. Dialogue – so it turns out this is how you do dialogue, and characterisation, and description. All in one page. I think it’s worth including in full. You’ll enjoy this.

Iris sits opposite Alex in a bar in the New Town. She swings a silver shoe off the end of one toe and bites down on an olive. Alex toys with the bracelet on her wrist, rolling it between his fingers. Then he glances at his watch. ‘She’s never usually this late,’ he murmurs. His eyes are hidden behind dark glasses that give Iris back a warped reflection of herself, of the room behind her.

She drops the olive stone, sucked clean, into a dish. She’d forgotten that Alex’s wife, Fran, was joining them. ‘Isn’t she?’ Iris reaches for another olive, presses it between her teeth.

Alex says nothing, shakes a cigarette out of its box, lifts it to his mouth. She licks her fingers, swirls her cocktail around her glass. ‘You know what?’ she says, as he searches for a match. ‘I got an invoice today and next to my name it had “the witch” scribbled on it. In pencil.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. “The witch” Can you believe that? I can’t remember who it was now.’

He is silent, striking a match against its box raising the flame to his mouth. He takes a long draw on his cigarette before saying, ‘Obviously it was someone who knows you.’

Iris considers her brother for a moment as he sits before her, smoke curling from his mouth. Then she reaches out and drops an olive down the front of his shirt.

I think that scene should be in every ‘how to’ guide to fiction. It tells you more about this brother and sister than you realise until you get to the end of the book and re-read it, and you realise that yes, you did pick it up the first time round. It was all there. The scene stuck in my head all the way through the book so when I got to the end, all I could think was “yup, knew that”. The one thing that really riles me (all right, there is more than one thing) is when something appears at the end of a book in a grand unveiling and I don’t just think, I know that it was not set up properly. It was just dropped in to solve a problem, to get to the ending, to wrap up something that made no sense. There were no clues, no hints, no way that I, the reader, could have worked out how the story was drawn to a close.

In this book, however, I knew what was going to happen because it was the only thing that could happen, because I knew the characters, knew what they were like, knew how they would react. It was an inevitability – as it should be. Twists are great, but you have to be able to say “I should have known that” – because the author laid out the trail – as well as a second trail, the one which you were supposed to follow, thinking you had figured it out, only to find you were deceived all along (cue evil laughter from the author – fooled another one). My batting average for figuring out what the twists are has improved greatly, but (fortunately) there are still enough variations to catch me out. It would be boring otherwise.

Anyway, back to Maggie O’Farrell. In the spirit of obsessiveness, which in my family we know is an inherited trait, I now have two more of her books on my holiday reading list. It reminds me of our holiday ten years ago in Boston (unbelievably, still the era when you couldn’t get any book in the world delivered to you within a few days) when I ordered every book Jodi Picoult had written to be delivered to our hotel. Back then, only one or two of her books were available in the UK and, having read The Pact, I had to read everything else by her. It does mean I have pretty complete collections by my “go to” authors. Maggie O’Farrell has been added to that list.

PS every book I’ve mentioned this week and last comes highly recommended by me. Read any of them, you’ll be glad you did.

PPS you should also have known that this blog was going to be about Maggie O’Farrell because I’ve been telling you it would be for the last two weeks. Just in case you thought I hadn’t laid the trail…