Research, Live, Write, Repeat

I’ve not blogged much about the book I’m writing at the moment. Partly because there’s not much to say about it yet, partly because I’m not sure what shape it will finally take. But the process of constructing it (and at the moment it feels very much like the scaffolding’s just been put up) is quite fascinating in its own right – well, to me at least. It’s a little tricky to fit research and writing around the full-time job (and, you know, having a life) but I do find it interesting and absorbing. It also means I can honestly say ‘I’m writing a book’! So this is a little post about what I’ve discovered so far on my quest to become a fully-fledged biographer.

First, there’s the hours spent in the archives, riffling through boxes, reading old letters and trying to decipher generations of family trees.Basically, it’s being legitimately nosy.

Someone should have installed an inergen system (museum nerd joke)

Someone should have installed an inergen system (museum nerd joke)

I’ve absolutely adored it – one big surprise was to discover that the main archives that I’m using had a pretty serious fire in 2009, so several boxes of documents are singed and everything still smells of smoke, even six years later. An earnest archivist has done their best to neaten up the documents by cutting off the worst of the burned bits, but the trouble with this is that it makes any attempt at deciphering the damaged writing impossible, as the top part of each page is often missing entirely.

A little friend in the archives

A little friend in the archives

On the plus side, I’ve discovered some lovely little sketches in the margins of pages: look at this little chap!

Although this is a poet’s archive, a lot of the poet’s early manuscripts were written on medical notepaper or discarded hospital paperwork. Patient lists, notes between doctors, clinic timings: my subject was a medical receptionist so she had a lot of this kind of waste paper to hand to jot down ideas and drafts for her poems. It’s all over 30 years old now, but it does give one that eerie feeling of distant proximity to people’s private lives, even those who are only incidental, tiny players in the story of another life. Man Hat1The hospital she worked at in the 1970s and 1980s specialised in neurology so typed words like hydrocephalus, anosmia, and neurosyphilis show through the page, like ghosts under the drafts of poems. The fascination with the ‘neurologically deficient’ that Oliver Sacks describes (his words, not mine) in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat had a clear effect on my subject too: the first poem she ever wrote is one written in anger at a doctor’s treatment of his patients. [As an aside, you can read a brilliant review of that book over on Stuck In A Book!]

I’m also discovering that you can’t rely on books or newspapers or even obituaries to give you facts. To date, errors and omissions have included:

  • omitting someone’s life-affirming second marriage and mentioning only the first short-lived one, in a national newspaper
  • claiming someone went to a fairly famous school (which in its turn has absolutely no record of them ever having been there)
  • suggesting that someone was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, when the official court transcripts and lists of people present makes no mention of them

It remains to be seen whether I can unearth any truths behind these ‘untruths’, but I  have discovered a few surprises, from unexpected illegitimate children to family feuds spanning over 40 years. Trying to separate what really happened from what people say has happened is time-consuming and I’ll never be 100% certain that I’ve got it right myself, but I love being drawn down the biographical rabbit hole.

That’s about all I can say for now, but I have now at least completed a 5,000 draft of the first chapter: the beginning is begun, now only the remaining 95,000 words of its middle and end to go…

The Jewel Garden

I don’t read many books about gardening. Scratch that, I have almost never read a book about gardening. But I absolutely adore gardens, and the moment I picked up Monty and Sarah Don’s The Jewel Garden the photographs alone transported me to the type of country garden I love best: a little unruly, abundant and colourful.

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

The book is a dual biography, with the two author/subjects taking it in turns to tell parts of their story. Sometimes the narrative switches at every paragraph; sometimes you get pages of Monty followed by pages of Sarah. Incidentally, Monty is Don’s stage name, the moniker of his public persona; his family all call him Montagu. Him I recognised from the TV programmes, and I knew about Sarah from their book Fork to Fork, but what I didn’t know was that they had been fashionable jewellery designers in Knightsbridge before leaving the rat race for the good life in Herefordshire. They fell in love at Cambridge, where Monty was an older-than-average English undergraduate and Sarah already married to an academic biologist.

Clematis Niobe © RHS

The vivid jewel-like Clematis Niobe © RHS

She left her husband for the earthy charms of this passionate younger man, and their marriage has survived 32 years, the collapse of their business and Monty’s countless periods of depression. Their life together in the jewellery trade inspires the creation of the eponymous Jewel Garden, reflecting the ‘jewel’, ‘brights’, ‘pastels’ and ‘crystal’ of gem stones. The descriptions of creating their Herefordshire garden following the desperate years of the business’ collapse are lyric and uplifting. For me, these passages spark both memory and fantasy.

Farm Cottage as we knew it

The farm cottage as we knew it

The memories are of the great country house estate garden where my father worked and which his children were lucky enough to have as an outdoor extension of their imaginations. We lived in a tied farm cottage on the edge of the estate, but we nearly didn’t live there at all. Much like for the Dons, our move created triumph from disaster, but only just. In 1990 my father’s business went bankrupt (at almost exactly the same time as the Dons) and with it came the repossession of our house, surety against the  business loan. My mother was working part-time for a large country estate, and her employers took pity on the family, allowing us to live in the cottage and employing my father as a gardener. The cottage itself was nothing special – only the width of one room and perishingly cold in winter – but the real bonus was the proximity of the estate’s great Victorian walled garden.

The main estate house with garden

The main estate house with garden

Peach trees espaliered down the red brick garden walls, gooseberry bushes huddled in shallow border lined with ancient up-ended green glass bottles, and every section of the garden was edged in ancient box. A sunken greenhouse hunkered down in the middle, where my dad grew his prize-winning tomatoes with their sweet pungent summer scent, and by the gate grew an immense bush of lemon balm mint, through which I ran my fingers on the way to school and back each day. Although that garden was a hundred years or more older than the one the Dons created (and further east by the entire width of England), the feeling of being subsumed into the verdant Englishness of the country garden is the same.

Oriental Poppy © RHS

Oriental Poppy © RHS

This is where the fantasy side begins: I of course want to create something like the Dons’ Jewel Garden now, as an adult about the same age as the Dons when they first moved to Herefordshire. As someone born in the country but living in a city, I want to wake to feel the frost on the window pane, to be able to walk out into my own garden and pick the flowers and fruit I have grown. I want to have the space to create something organic and beautiful and a little wild. I’ve always been a sucker for The Good Life and this book encourages me further. Of course, like most armchair gardeners I have very little skill or knowledge when it comes to the practicalities of making a garden. Although I did spend a lot of time in the garden with my father as a child, it was to indulge in all the outdoor pursuits best-loved by children: picking raspberries, eating tomatoes fresh from the vine, and playing hide and seek behind the hedges.

Rosa moyesii ® David Austin

Rosa moyesii ® David Austin

At nearly 30, my vocabulary is the limited one of a town-dweller. A rose for me is just that, but for the Dons it is always a r. hugonis or a r. cantabrigiensis in the spring, or a r. moyesii or r. sericea pteracantha in the high summer.

Rosa Hugonis ®  David Austin

Rosa Hugonis ® David Austin

Poppies are opium, Welsh or oriental; clematis ‘Gipsy Queen’ or ‘Niobe’. The vocabulary is intoxicating in its precision; it embodies the history, imagination and passion of thousands of antecedent gardeners. Although I can’t imagine what each individual variety looks like precisely, I can imagine the sweetness of their scent and the giddy sense of sheer vibrant life that they give off. This is what The Jewel Garden enables its readers to do: build the beautiful imagined gardens of their memories and dreams, without any of the back-breaking hard work that would have to go into it in real life.

Rosa Cantabrigiensis ® David Austin

Rosa Cantabrigiensis ® David Austin

The Dons have done the groundwork for us, and the result is beguiling.

The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow

Submission and recommendations

Submission and recommendations

Hurrah! I completed my draft first chapter (well, part of it) of Fame is the Monster in time for the Scottish Book Trust’s 5th September deadline. Now it’s just a case of playing the waiting game…

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

In the mean time I am going to start approaching publishers with the bare bones of Fame: having never done this before, I have no idea how it will pan out but I’ve read a few guides to non-fiction publication submissions and hopefully a couple of sympathetic ears will have a pre-submission listen too.

And by means of giving you something meaningful to read, here are a couple of links to my top three historical biographers, with links to reviews of what I’ve enjoyed most from their oeuvre:

Jenny Uglow – author of the brilliant Lunar Men, which looks at ‘the scientific club that formed the intellectual engine of the industrial revolution’.

Richard Holmes – penned The Age of Wonder, a book about ‘real heroes,  scientists like Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davy and William Herschel, who changed our understanding of the world forever’.

Kathleen Jones – bringing the women of the Wordsworth circle back into the public eye with A Passionate Sisterhood.

Ambrose's Tavern Token

Day Two: problems with sources

Today’s writing has been centred on the first part of chapter one. Yesterday I experimented with picture-painting in the Prologue, trying to recreate the image of the 19th century Ambrose’s tavern in my readers’ minds. Great fun, although largely conjectural!

Ambrose's Tavern Token

Ambrose’s Tavern Token

Today the focus was on developing a pithy and attractive first chapter of the book proper, trying to distil the essence of this incredibly unwieldy and purposefully undefinable publication into a few tantalising paragraphs. Returning to the first (well, second if we’re being pedantic) issue, I realised that I had never read it in its entirety, instead prefer to nibble on individual essays. And so my inexperienced feet found first stumbling block: there seem to be two versions of this first all-important issue!

I had found a scanned online version of Maga on the HathiTrust’s digital library, which seemed at first ideal – except that the text is difficult to search and because it is such a massive file, can be slow to load. I then found a transcript of the original: which seemed to differ in content from the version I was already using! I think I’ve reconciled the differences, but I see how slow and frustrating even these most basic of research tasks can sometimes be. Suffice to say I didn’t manage to read the whole thing, but I have got a much better idea of how Maga’s class-based humour works (and I mean ‘works’ in a purely 19th century literary context). I also revisited this all-too-excellent essay (wish I’d written it) by Andrew McConnell Stott and brought in a bit of Keats, Leigh Hunt and Shelley into the mix.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, circa 1835 (1813)

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, circa 1835 (1813)

I managed to hit the magic ton, and so can retire to a night of slightly more mindless (in)activity. The husband assures me he is rustling up an almond and apricot tart as I type (hopefully it will resemble this one in terms of both taste and beauty) and we having an as-yet unopened box set of Breaking Bad, so I’d say the omens are good!

Words written: 1023

Words left: 2477

Days left til deadline: 25

In the Blood

In the Blood – A Memoir of My Childhood, Andrew Motion (Faber, 2006)

On a dreary January day I picked up this book, knowing virtually nothing about Andrew Motion except that he’d been the ‘safe choice’ Poet Laureate before Carol Ann Duffy, and that he’d once refused permission to use a recording of one of his poems in a small exhibition on classic poetry. I did not have the impression of him as someone who would write a particularly fascinating autobiography.

In the Blood (Faber, 2006)However, I was curiously drawn to it, not least because I had a long afternoon stretching out before me when my only task was to print and fold hundreds of letters, so anything was a welcome distraction. And as so often is the case with Faber, the book itself is an attractive book, with red thorns curling across the cover and the title and author’s name picked out in red and black tipsy capitals. Printed on textured paper, it felt slightly rough to the touch, but the spine seemed unbroken, the pages unthumbed. A bad omen?

As it turns out, no. In the Blood  is a bloody book: Motion’s family are upper middle-class and hunt, shoot and fish with their set, and Motion appears both smeared in fox blood and dripping with the blood of a recently-shot deer at various points. Although I am not an advocate of blood sports, this detail served as a particularly visceral metaphor for the vicissitudes of growing up, whilst placing Motion firmly in a recognisable social milieu .

Motion (and how fitting to have such a vibrant abstract noun as your surname) is a deft turner of phrase and tale. His autobiography opens with the description of one day in late adolescence. The themes of first love, or at least first lust, and burgeoning adulthood quickly shift towards the side of the lens through which we are looking at Motion’s life, as a far greater and darker event is about to overshadow his world. We then jump back to early childhood, and then further back into the half-remembered, half-mythologised world of older Motions and Bakewells.

However, when he gets to senior school (Radley College) time seems to slip from Motion’s grasp. He’s preparing for his O-levels, and then suddenly he’s 12 years old again, and mere paragraphs later he’s about to start his A-levels. Before long I’d lost track of the order of what happened during his teenage years; perhaps this was simply mimetic of the confusion that he felt during that time (although it seems to be the period in which Motion felt most comfortable and purposeful), but it struck me as slightly lazy writing, as if he almost couldn’t be bothered to write as carefully as he had done in earlier chapters.

However , as you might expect from a poet, the crafting of the words themselves is the book’s redeeming feature. Never mind poetry in motion, this Motion’s prose is as lively, vivid and dramatic as you could wish for in autobiographical writing. He inhabits the mind of his younger self with convincing ease, presenting conversations and memories in such a moving and authentic way that you have to remind yourself that these infant rememberings must be coloured with the filter of adult comprehension. Motion and his readers seem tragically drawn towards his mother, and the book is peppered with premonitions of her final illness and fragility. These hints always spurred me on to find out what would happen to her – and Motion himself. I began to care for them as a family, their struggles and actions seeming wholly real, sometimes sad and often endearing. It mixed pathos with humour and resilience, and made real and rounded characters of Motion’s family. And it made me want to read his poetry, in part to see if any of these episodes had crossed over from prosody into verse.

What’s next?  I am impatiently waiting for a delivery of Tove Jansson’s new biography Life, Art, Words so expect to see a review of it on here very soon!