Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Listen to silence, feel its echo

The written word is beautiful to see and the paper always feels and smells special. If my finger traces the words of a brand-new book, the freshly inked letters seem to stand proud of the paper. Older, well-leafed pages with thumb-softened, yellowed borders carry a faint scent of cut wood, cold ash and forest clearings with a curl of smoke.

Words also sound beautiful. When authors used to introduce their own talking books, Thomas Mann, referring to his novel, Buddenbrooks, told his listeners:
"An epic is for the ear more than for the eye. In early times it was said and sung, it was listened to—and, as a matter of fact, this book too was listened to before it was looked at, when the young author read it aloud as he wrote it, to relatives and friends."
I know a man who is blind. He listens to talking books, especially character-driven stories about ordinary lives, which he orders via the RNIB. Only five percent of published books are available in this way, he told me, although the choice is still huge. He may not turn pages in his hands, but the recorded voice unfolds and shifts the scenes in his mind.

In fiction we all lose touch fleetingly with our own selves in order to slip into the worlds of others, to feel undercurrents heaving with secrets, to witness the struggle against the gathering waves and to worry that the protagonist might be swept away. Whether we hear the words or see them, the most important part is to feel their weight and search their strata.

Without being able to see the words, without feeling the paper and breathing in the scent of the pages, perhaps the layers of the story and the characters become even more profound. 

The descriptions of what my friend 'saw' when he listened to one particular book we discussed showed that my interpretation of the characters was shallower than his. I had absorbed far less, unrolled fewer layers. He had uncovered greater depths and unearthed more hidden treasure than I had managed to find.

However,  the words alone had not led him to these discoveries. All that was unsaid/unwritten, all the pauses/paragraph breaks and every discreet trace of foreboding spoke to him too.  When I had turned the pages, I missed some of those shadows and echoes. My friend who listens, saw them all.

Brian loves the fragrance of paper, occasionally attacks it, and listens to first drafts without wincing.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The shadows of war

One of many signs warning that the border between East and West Germany was directly alongside the path.

I invented the Bishop family for Tying Down The Lion, but the genesis of the novel probably came from my father's fascination with Germany since the war, having lied about his age to join up when it was in its last throes.

In 1968, he took us on a driving holiday to Bavaria, in the intense heat of a Ford Corsair, our legs velcroed to the vinyl seats. My father quietly swore about the dwindling petrol and diminishing money, boiling over when his cigarettes ran low. My brother and I squabbled in the back seat and learnt to accommodate bladders stretched to full capacity. Every time we spotted Toiletten, my father said, "Ooh, sorry, too late. Gone past now."

I was obsessed with asking where Hitler was buried until my exasperated father pointed vaguely at a mountain, saying, "Somewhere up there." After that, the F├╝hrer’s face stared at me from every slope.

During the trip, we were plucked from our hotel and taken in by a German family who insisted on showing us—total strangers and English to boot—incredible hospitality and showered me with presents when they found out it was my birthday—a fact my parents had been hoping to ignore until we were back home and they could draw out the Family Allowance.

I made several exciting discoveries: continental quilts meant sleeping beneath a cloud, potato salad didn't always come from a Heinz can, and the thrill of playing German whist. It was similar to the Knock-Out version I knew, just slightly more aggressive.

Years later, on a school trip to Germany, I was old enough to realise that the spectre of war still hovered. The first question the father of my host family asked me the moment I set foot over his threshold, was, "How old is your father?"

But The Cold War was casting the longest shadow. 

We were taken to see the barbed-wire border dividing the country into east and west. All the English students climbed out of the coach and stared at the warning signs. Despite the bright summer weather, the atmosphere was chilling. Our German counterparts opted to stay in the coach. The girl I was staying with chose not to go on the trip at all.

“I'm sorry. I find it too sad,” she said.

Even the livewire English boys fell silent. For all our group photographs, at least one of them could be expected to raise one arm in a Nazi salute and hold their little black Instamatic cameras, moustache-fashion, above their upper lips. On this occasion, the mood was sombre, the photographs hastily taken, and soon we all wanted to leave the barbed wire and the sorrowful strip of no man’s land, beyond which lay this other place, where villages were—as Jacqueline Bishop describes it—sliced apart like Battenberg cake, only they look less pretty

It was a place where watchtowers grew out of the soil. Where fields cultivated from the same batch of seed were crudely divided. A farmer’s own land had become suddenly out-of-bounds. If he took one step too far, he would be shot.

The only harmony was underground, where, like the warm air of the West Berlin subway drifting up through the ventilation shafts onto the pavements of East Berlin, roots free to travel at will could spread unseen. 

The armed guards patrolling the strip were also invisible, but our guide assured us they were there.

Since that day, recalling the final glance we all made over our shoulders as the coach rumbled into life and the boys' Hitler jokes softly resurfaced, I have imagined the East German guards watching us leave, their tension lifting.

I think of them lighting cigarettes in the stillness, relieved that nothing came to pass, the thump of their hearts slowing as they stood in the shadows to watch our coach disappear into the sun setting in the west.

Unsure if I was allowed to take a picture, I snapped this view of the border fencing with my Instamatic. It may not look much, but for me it captures the loneliness of the divided country.