Tessa Boase: “Where do writers write, and what stops us from writing?”

Kipling Study BatemansI used to rant and rage than I had nowhere in which to write. I wanted a door to close, an inviolable space. Instead I had a small desk in the corner of the living room – a room littered with toys, and a desk littered with domestic admin. My view was of the brick wall of a railway line, against which our little house hunched. Commuters could look out of the train window and clock me as I sat at my desk.

If only the physical conditions were perfect, I knew the words would flow out of me. I began visiting famous writers’ houses to discover their secret. Virginia Woolf had a ‘writing lodge’, as the National Trust calls it today – no shed, this – at the bottom of the rambling garden of Monk’s House, Rodmell. The desk faces out, towards the Downs. It’s a mind-expanding view: far horizons, big sky, light, racing shadows.

Rudyard Kipling had a seriously large study at Bateman’s, Burwash – perhaps the biggest room in the house, right at its heart. It is oak panelled, mullion windowed, the walls insulated by books. The desk is immense; masculine. The polished carver chair is commodious. Antique globes sit on the Turkey rugs. I imagined his unwelcome wife Carrie tiptoeing around him; the maid nervously bringing a tray with tea things.

But who has an oak-panelled study in their home? No writers that I know of. Most of us write on the fringes of ours and of other people’s lives – café tables, on the train, a table at the library, in the kitchen. Holding the thread, keeping the creative magic going can be very hard.

I booked myself onto a course with the Arvon Foundation: ‘Non-Fiction, Work in Progress’. The site was rural Devon, a thatched longhouse. No internet, no mobile phone signal. For one week, this small group of would-be and published writers would actually stop talking about writing and write.

I had, of course, imagined the view I’d look down on from my desk in the eaves: a patchwork of fields, grazing sheep, cobalt skies. And how the sloping floorboards, beamed ceiling and thick, silent walls would all inspire me at my laptop.

I was the last to arrive, and was given a key to a room on the ground floor. The door was hidden under the staircase, and the room looked out onto the gravel car park. It was about the size of a prisoner’s cell – perhaps smaller – and the desk was no bigger than a child’s. I could barely fit my thighs under it. No sun streamed through the window. A bluebottle buzzed helplessly against the small windowpane.

I stormed back into the Arvon office.

‘I’m sorry, but this week means so much to me – I’ve left my children with my husband, saved up for months, I HAVE to be able to write!’

Sorry, they told me; this was my room.

I took home from that week a photograph of that little desk. I wanted a talisman to look at whenever I complained about my writing environment. It was horrible, but I grew to love it. The writing process became – not painless, but strangely easy. So this is how Jeffrey Archer wrote so much in prison, I found myself thinking. Nothing but the four walls, and the inside of one’s head. ‘My imagination came alive,’ the writer Kazuo Ishiguro said recently, ‘when I moved away from the immediate world around me.’

Now that I live in Hastings, I do have a room of my own. I have a sea view over pitched roofs and autumnal sycamores. But – perversely – I find that to write, I have to leave those four familiar walls and find some neutral space. A café, a seaside bench, a random table in the corner of a lending library. Or the train, where I’m writing right now.

Tessa Boase is author of ‘The Housekeeper’s Tale’ (Aurum Press)

Pagham Beach by Suzanne Houchin

Pagham beachI look around at Ted, sitting, sleeping in his armchair by the fire.  His face is lined and grey. This was to be our happy-ever-after retirement home. It used to be an idyllic spot when we played here as children… but the sand is long gone, sucked up and thrown down far away.

The sea sounds close today. Its teeth are ripping at the beach, the waves gnawing at the rocks. It is the end of summer, and soon we will suffer the onset of winter storms. I dread the grey skies and pelting rain, but most I fear the wind. The howling, spitting, roaring wind. It whips up the great expanse of raging water at Pagham beach, so that our tiny house, perched precariously only yards from the swirling vortex is threatened every day, and worse, every night.  Will there be anything left when I wake from another dark night of storms?

I stare through the salt-streaked window at the shingle, the grey scrub bushes poking through the pebbles. At the old plastic bottles and bits of broken rope. The rotting seaweed strewn across the stones.The sun is beginning to sink in the west, so darkness is not far away. A squally storm blasts the shore.

Suddenly I see her. A small child of what – maybe six or seven. She’s moving along the pebbles, struggling against the wind, falling, then crawling. I blink, and blink again, cursing my failing eyesight. She is there, I can see her red coat, now just a small bundle wedged against an old petrol can on the shingle. Has she fallen? Is she hurt? Where is her mother?

My heart beats fast as I feel the old panic start again: the terror of losing a child, the fear of disaster. The coat is not moving. The rain starts in earnest, as the threatening clouds cover the sinking sun. It will soon be dark. I have to go to her.

I stagger over the stones, I slip and slide. My feet are like leaden boots. The storm blasts rain and sand into my eyes, and it’s hard to see. My glasses are running with water, no use at all.  Where is she?  I screw my eyes up, turn my head, to no avail. Has she gone? Where is the red coat? All at once I think I see her moving in the corner over by the old wall.  I’m sure I can get to her. I must get to her…

Somehow it’s farther than I thought. My ears are deafened by the crashing of the waves, my legs struggle to keep going.  The sea is so close. The ground beneath my feet is trembling. I can feel the thunder through my shoes.  And then I am picked up like a broken starfish, and thrown against something – something hard.  Salty, icy water rushes into my face, my hair, my ears. I choke, I struggle, but it’s futile.

Through the wind and rain and pounding surf, I can see Ted coming out of the house. He’s got a torch, he’s calling me. But he won’t find me, not until morning. When the tide has turned, and the sea has laid me carefully, so carefully,  next to the dirty roll of red carpet wedged into a crevice in the granite.

Umi Sinha: “Sussex and the British Raj”

Sea and DownsWhy did I choose Sussex as one of the settings in my ‘British Raj’ novel?

I must confess the main reason was because I live in Sussex, so it was easy to make sure my descriptions of place were accurate. But there were also links with India, some of which I knew already – The Indian Hospital at Brighton Pavilion in the First World War, the Chattri on the downs at Patcham, the fact that Rudyard Kipling lived in Sussex – in Rottingdean and later at Batemans in Burwash – and that many people retiring from the Colonies settled along the south coast.

Others I discovered by the kind of coincidence that happens more than you’d expect when writing a novel. Just one example – I had chosen a village at the foot of Devil’s Dyke as the place where my protagonist, Lila Langdon, is sent to live with her great-aunt after a family tragedy exiles her from her home in India.  The Indian Mutiny or Revolt is part of her family history and it turned out in the course of my researches that one of the main instigators had once stayed at the Devil Dyke’s hotel.

Perhaps because of these connections, from the moment I moved here I felt at home. Something about the architecture of Brighton, even apart from the Pavilion, reminded me of Mumbai, a city by the sea in which many of the great buildings were built by the British. Browsing the flea markets I would come across Indian artefacts that I remembered from my childhood – brass tray tables, bronze Hindu gods, elephant foot stools – and Victorian novels set in India.

Also the open attitudes and appreciation of difference meant that, for the first time in my life, I felt that I belonged, if for no other reason that many people who’ve chosen the city feel they don’t belong in some way. As a friend once said reassuringly, “The good thing about Brighton is that no matter how weird you are, there’s always someone weirder than you.”

Umi SinhaUmi Sinha

 

My Journey to Eastbourne Library by Barbara Rutland

Cliffs at Beachy HeadI walk to the bus stop over flat land, reclaimed from the sea, where once I would have been swimming. Langney, several miles East of Eastbourne, means long island, very different from its American namesake. The bus provides a view I love of the marshland where it meets the end of the South Downs, a ridge of rounded upland, reminding me of a horse’s saddleback, but Kipling of whales’ backs. Beachy Head, England’s highest sea cliff edges the Downs not far before they end at Eastbourne. Today the downs are a dark profile against cloud and not as cheery as sometimes, but always interesting.

The bus draws towards town along Seaside Road, a long, busy thoroughfare running parallel to the sea. We pass parades of shops of individual retailers – furniture, electrical and double-glazing, then past many churches and nearer town, fish and chip restaurants, giving the flavour of a seaside town. Then through a small cosmopolitan area offering Indian, Chinese, Turkish and Polish fare. This east side of the pier, called the East End is traditionally the less salubrious side of town. Finally, we pass the refurbished Royal Hippodrome Theatre, with its ornate interior, I have yet to see.

My journey ends at the railway station, a grand Victorian red and yellow brick building that welcomes those to the seaside who are not as fortunate as me to live there.

Thumb on the Handbrake Button by Alan Bush

driving-mirror-02Driving, over to Lizzie’s as she’d done every Friday since their sons were born – need to talk about shepherd outfits, innkeeper outfits – how to avoid making them. The rain has stopped leaving shapes to the edges of clouds; the road gravel-stained, but clear and she makes it into 4th, then 5th. She’d met Elizabeth through NCT, kept meeting for elevenses, an occasional lunch, even with Lizzie’s move from terraced Emsworth to her two acres of rooks and rabbits on the Downs – still the same mugs of weak tea though, and the ring-stained table where they would dunk fig-rolls and discuss the MMR, mashed root vegetables – imagine changing constellations of sheep on the hillside through the window.

It was already a long journey – re-routed by local radio, the River Lavant swollen out of course through Singleton – ‘with care’ she had followed the slush of a 4×4. Turned off the main road, taking to memory and finger-posted roads, level lanes of smooth, merged puddles that downhill flowed ruffle and flint in the roadside to exit through gateways, or slip under a fence by woods of black water-branches, as dark as the sock-wash, as unfamiliar without their Autumn leaves as the ivy barn cornered in the junction of the Chichester road.

The silver-white signs shine as she turns out, she’s quickly up to 2nd, then 3rd, asking herself if Mary had ever to speak to Joseph about belts and sandals. And looking further ahead to where the road – should be, but isn’t. As if removed from between the slopes of winter barley and faded shapes of woodland – smudged out by chalk-brown water into which tarmac, white lines and cats eyes slide, leaving just hedges and a distant sign-post to suggest it. She stops inside the water’s edge, grass like seaweed on the surface where in summer a bank of cow-parsley had hidden a ditch, dug out with traffic lights and ‘look Mummy! Lellow dactor!’ – not so late that day, and given a turn to wave at the hard-hats, the cars waiting on the other side. No traffic here though. And no reception on the Nokia – just mist around raindrops in the corners of the windscreen – a shiver that starts in her shoulders. Her feet.

John McCullough: “Heart of Brighton”

Blurred-city-lights-James Holland

 

It’s off-centre, where the ocean slinks ―a drag queen’s
slate-blue evening glove, absurdly long, unmatched for sequins.

 

 

How does living in the south impact on my writing? For me, the biggest influence is the urban environment I live in. Brighton’s full of movement and colour, as I tried to convey in ‘Heart of Brighton’. The city has a unique identity in terms of having been associated throughout its history with outsiders, with dirty weekends and gangsters, punks and jugglers, alternative sexualities and subcultures. Walking through the North Laine or down St James Street, you get used to encountering stilt walkers, drag queens, Nu Rave pensioners, hen parties.

Central Brighton is much more like Soho than Blackpool or Eastbourne; it’s a gloriously weird bubble, and the feelings conjured up by inhabiting a space like this can’t help but shape what local writers produce. It isn’t perfect but at its best it’s a very exciting and progressive place. There’s nowhere else I’d rather live.

My first book of poems The Frost Fairs was inspired by the type of culture that surrounds us in Brighton – especially the LGBT side of things. It’s a book of love poems spoken by a range of voices – lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex, bisexual and straight. Many of them are set in the historical past, especially the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and others in modern day Brighton, London or on the Downs. I’m interested in the more unusual local flowers like hoary stock, rampion and houndstongue and the particular mix of wildlife we have here. A lot of the poems deal also with transatlantic relationships and questions of empire.

Funnily enough, I’ve often found American poets to be of most help when exploring the cities and chalk landscapes I know. I’m always going back to Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop. The first time I ever wrote about Brighton was a poem called ‘Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express’, which is a very fast-paced urban poem I often perform. Though I ended up doing a promotional tour with The Frost Fairs around the UK, I always love reading at local events and getting to know other writers here. There are so many talented types in this small city, and I love being blown away by a poem read by someone I’ve not met before. Writing can be a lonely business so it’s great to hang out with other people who have recently been up in the small hours fretting about a line break – or waving their fist at a seagull!

John McCulloughJohn McCullough

Simon Brett: “Reading the South is a two-way process”

Reading the South display at Midhurst LibraryHaving done my first Reading the South session at Midhurst Library (with two more to come in the same venue), I was struck by how much that kind of event helps me focus on my own writing. I hope of course that’s it’s a stimulating experience for the participants, but I find discussing with them how I write and, in this case, how I use the South of England as a setting, makes me examine my own working methods. Sometimes that examination reassures me that I’m going about things the right way; on other occasions it prompts me to do something different (never a bad idea for a writer).

Reading the South has also affected my reading. Thinking particularly about Brighton as a literary setting has taken me back to some old favourites. I am rereading with great enjoyment Graham Greene’s classic thriller Brighton Rock. And I’m thinking of moving on to Patrick Hamilton’s wonderfully creepy novel Hangover Square, which features a ‘romantic’ weekend in Brighton that goes horribly wrong. I’ve also revisited John Osborne’s wonderful autobiography A Better Class of Person, in which he writes: ‘If I were to choose a way to die it would be after a drunken, fish-eating day ending up at the end of the Palace Pier. Brighton is like nowhere else. No other resort has its simple raffishness… It was still the Mecca of the dirty weekend… There was no close season on sex; sex was all year round. There was no drowsiness in the air as in Bournemouth, only randiness. Ozone in Eastbourne was spermatozoa in Brighton, burning brightly like little tadpoles of evening light across the front. Whenever I have lunch in Brighton, I always want to take someone to bed in the afternoon.’

So for me at least Reading the South is proving to be a two-way process. I’m certainly getting something out of it – I hope the participants are too.

Simon BrSimon Brettett

Jane Rusbridge: “The South”

Bosham-Harbour-2‘In the half-light a woman runs, her mouth snatching at air. Along Salthill Creek towards the sea, a rope of hair twisting between her shoulder blades, she ducks the salt-stunted branches. (…) Even in the semi darkness this landscape is familiar, a part of her; she grew up playing here, fingers and feet in the mud at the creek’s edge where the roots of misshapen trees are exposed more and more each year with the movement of tides and earth.’ (Extract from the opening chapter of Rook)

What was I was thinking about as I wrote this scene? Not running –  I don’t run at dawn and never have, though my good friend Jackie does. Which is lucky. Nora needs to run; running has become something she needs to do to survive, mentally as much as physically, so part of my research for developing Nora’s character involved picking Jackie’s brain for information. She also, very kindly, vetted my descriptions of what Nora is wearing in this scene, how her body feels as she runs.

However, the running research was all done by the time I wrote this scene. My focus was elsewhere, back in my own childhood. The pebbles, sand and sky of the Sussex seascape are all a part of my sense of identity, of who I am, probably because I have lived most of my life close to the sea. I grew up in Bexhill, East Sussex, where we had a beach hut with a stove on which my mother made coffee and our breakfast porridge. My childhood memories are mostly of being outside, barefoot; of running on pebbles, climbing breakwaters, exploring rock pools, cartwheeling on the sand and building huge sandcastles with other children. We were there in all weathers and all times of the year, not just summer; often from breakfast until bedtime.

I moved to West Sussex as an adult and lived for 30 years in the Witterings, where we had a house just across the road from the sea. It’s where I wrote my first novel, The Devil’s Music. For me, memories of Sussex beaches are associated with pleasure in the freedom, tempered with safety in familiarity. Walking along a beach at low tide is where I feel most at home and, looking back, I’d hazard a guess that’s why as I began writing my first novel, when everything about the process was unfamiliar and new, the Sussex seascape was there as the backdrop. Rook, my second novel,  ventures a little further inland, along a creek path, across wheat field, to the ancient West Sussex village of Bosham.

Jane RusbridgeJane Rusbridge

Juliet West: “Beginnings”

Worthing seafront-James HollandAn ageing Mod. A view from Cissbury Ring. A large plastic ice cream planted outside a pavement café. These were some of the photographs I’d taken in preparation for the first Reading the South creative writing workshop at Worthing library. I can’t make any claims as a photographer, but I hoped that the snapshots might prompt some interesting Sussex-inspired writing. Nothing polished. The germ of an idea, perhaps. A leaping-off point.

The class was full, eighteen of us in all, a mixture of complete beginners and some who’d been writing for a while. We began with introductions, and each of us talked briefly about a book we’d enjoyed. A friendly and generous spirit infused the room: we could have chatted about books for the whole two hours, but I had my notes to get through, and of course there were those photographs to hand out.

The theme of our workshop was ‘Beginnings’. We talked about strong openings, and how to convey atmosphere and tension from the very first line of a story or poem, reading extracts to illustrate the point. Finally I handed out the photographs. For fifteen minutes we were silent, heads down as we wrote our responses.

When the time was up, I took a deep breath and asked whether anyone was willing to share their work. No pressure, of course. I was prepared for silence and the shame of reading out my own scribblings (six sentences. One half-decent.). But a group member to my right put up his hand, apologising in advance for what we were about to hear. He proceeded to read a wonderfully tense, staccato piece about a driver stuck at a red traffic light on an A27 roundabout. More readings followed. I won’t list all the pieces, but the quality of responses was truly impressive. We heard writing that was in turn poignant, comic, quirky and inventive: imagine a girl lying on a railway crossing, a first date at a crazy golf course, a refugee gazing out at a hostile pebble beach . . . The South, it seems, harbours no end of hidden stories.

After a short break for coffee we began the second half of the workshop. We discussed familiar landscapes. How do writers describe the familiar without descending into cliché or those long descriptive passages which might be pleasing to read, but tell us little in terms of character or plot? One technique is to take the point of view of an outsider looking in, to describe a stranger’s skewed perspective. The ‘outsider’ might even be a local – someone who, for whatever reason, now questions their own sense of identity in a town they call home. I gave the group a first line as a prompt: ‘S/he gripped the pier railings and stared into the sea.’

Again, the quality of the responses was terrific, including a vivid verse about a child who goes to sea in a pink plastic mac, a girls’ boozy weekend gone wrong, and finally our last reading from a woman who said this was her first attempt at creative writing. She blew us away with her Birdman story. So much for leaping off: these writers had already begun to fly.

Juliet WestJuliet West

Stephanie Norgate: “Libraries connect readers and writers”

libraries-04Libraries are a wonderful resource for readers and writers. Writers can use their local library and the library’s online resources for research. So I would hope to investigate books, poetry, and illustrated books about the south that we could use in exercises – to connect the library stock to the writing we’re doing. It would be great if library users realised how many writers are local and that their books are available – that there’s a shared sense of location and concerns between writers and readers.

Writers are also readers – and need that constant feeding provided by a library.  As soon as I enter a library, I have a sense of possibility – all the freedom of those ideas and narratives that are available around me.  Also the physical space of a library is great for writing in (and must be defended!) – being quiet, yet around others, and knowing that you can browse and look things up, handle and read books easily and find something serendipitous that you weren’t expecting.

Stephanie NorgateStephanie Norgate