Wednesday, 27 August 2014

How do I write about “Britishness"?

Dear all,

If you read my previous moan-filled blog you will know I’m not doing much writing at the moment…but ignore that troublesome fact for the time being. I wanted to share a problem I am struggling with concerning the writing I should be doing. I have spent a lot of time thinking about a story that I hope will eventually become my first novel. I am still developing several short stories and they have taken up most of whatever little writing time I have undertaken this year but as the months pass I am becoming more and more anxious about starting the novel...but here’s the thing; I am away from ‘home’ and the location for my book is set at ‘home’ - London. As you may or may not have read I am in Spain until the end of the year taking some time out to think about what I am - or what I should be - doing with my life and in between drinking too much beer, failing miserably to learn the language and pretending I’m getting a tan, I have been slowly making notes and sketching out the rough outline of this supposed novel and its characters.

So the problem I have is that I cannot seem to believe in myself as I feel I should be ‘in London’ in order to write about London. I never saw this coming. In fact, I felt the opposite, before I had ever conceived of the novel it was a natural daydream to think about being miles away from anybody to have the peace and quiet and isolation to write about wherever my mind took me.

If a book is set in London what makes the reader believe it is set in London? Does a simple description of location convince? A character is running besides the Thames so the writer describes the passing buildings, the weather and famous landmarks, or is just saying ‘Thames’ enough. The writer describes the accents, the red buses, the road names, the inside of a pub…and so on. Is that enough? Or, do you even notice it? Should you get absorbed into the story so much that the characters propel the action regardless of where it is and the added description of location only bores you? I mean, do I really need to include the obvious?

The reason I am asking these questions is that the more I make notes for my story, the more I realise how desperately I want to capture London in my writing BUT I don’t know if I really understand what that means. Am I trying to capture how I see London, my character sees London or the general reader who may never have even visited sees London? Am I trying to be populist with making sure I include what I think an American reader would want to read about? I like to think that I am fully aware of those sorts of traps, as amateurish as I am, having a strong conviction that I write with my characters in mind to tell the story I want to tell.

Here’s a personal problem I am running into when making my notes; without getting overtly into politics I have never been one for comprehending nationalism. As long as I can remember, from early school days onwards I simply never got why people were so crazy for a sense of belonging to a nation that goes above and beyond just loving your country. (I don’t necessarily mean ultra nationalists here, I hope most people would agree with me when I say that to take your love of your country to a level whereby you try to defend or propagate prejudicial ideologies then that’s immoral behaviour  they are and hopefully will always be in the minority.) I’m talking about the everyday commonly shared sense of pride a person has when they say they are British because of the position we think we have in the world, to name a few: we are brought up with a sense of pride about our involvement and contribution to the world wars (including people of my generation who may still have elderly relatives who were part of WW2), we are brought up with a sense of pride for our academic achievements - the countless scientists and their discoveries, we are brought up with a fascination for our medieval history – the development of our monarchy and the history our of island’s political development, our world leading advancement of democracy…all of that is covered in school…so we become adults (if you consider being able to leave school and start work at 16 an adult, I’ll leave that up to you. In the UK the voting age is 18 although you can join the army at 16) firmly aware of our place in the world, the freedoms we probably very quickly take for granted, and that’s great, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, the reason I don’t see anything wrong with that is it is exactly what everyone does! All countries take pride in their history and as long as the educational system ensures a rounded multi perspective view (i.e. doesn’t just include the good stuff and omit the bad stuff) it’s a natural thing to do. In which case, do I have a responsibility to include the bad stuff, of which there is plenty? Should I be forever aware of the need to shoehorn something in?

So why then if I just said all that do I have a problem with nationalism. Well I suppose I don’t have a problem with it as I fully understand it and see its value, I think it is just I have never been overtly or aggressively attached to it. Here’s the first part of my explanation: I love being British but I have never felt I could speak for someone who is from outside of London! I don’t have confidence in speaking for anyone in north or west London for that matter, never mind Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Newcastle, Birmingham or what about Wales? I have a Welsh grandmother but do I know the first thing about living in Wales?

If I look at Britishness in that sense, as a location, then what are the shared traits that make us all the same? Is it just our history, our shared experiences from growing up watching sitcoms, soap operas, dramas and documentaries that are based in different towns and cities? Or perhaps music - Liverpool anyone? Coping with bad weather and train cancellations? Because I love television and music and art and books that may have been created by people from other parts of the country does that mean I can write on their behalf? I have no concept of what life is like in another part of the country and the question always reminds me of the United States. I have never thought of the states as a county because it is so big, same with Russia and China. I went to the US for around 6 weeks once and travelled trough a few different states and aside from loving the experience it only added to the preconception I had that from place to place things are so incredibly different. They have in some cases for example different laws, drastically different environments, populations, educational policies, criminal punishments which is why I have always had trouble imaging what the phrase ‘American way of life’ actually means because surely those common federal values only go so far, yet nevertheless a picture of the American way of life pops into my head anyway through years of conditioning through movies and television. Could a New Yorker feel the same sense of what it is to be an American if they moved to Utah or Wyoming? I don’t know, which is why I ask the question and the point of this blog – if someone asked me would I feel the same sense of what it is to be British if I moved to York or Cardiff or Aberdeen, etc. I wouldn’t know what to say as I have no idea. I really don’t know. Which is why I feel slightly uncomfortable, or should I say, I am worrying more, about all these notes I am making under the subject of Britishness when actually all I am doing is thinking of London.

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It’s an interesting subject for me because over the years I have realised more and more how much I love my part of London and how much I want to share it with others. It certainly wasn’t always that way. I remember for a long time thinking I would like to move elsewhere but whether it is growing older and seeing my friends and family settle down with their own families, or just feeling more comfortable with my own sense of self, I now feel much more rooted to home. This year away has helped me focus on that. I have had a lot of time to think about things and although I have not lost any sense of wonder at the world and a longing to do more travelling (I would love to see the world) I do not think I still have the urge to live anywhere else, I would always like to return to London.

I have always understood why some people feel a natural affinity for another country. You hear quite often of people moving to Australia, Canada, America (in my case English speaking countries for the most part of course, but in general it can be anywhere) and deciding to stay. If you like a culture then why not move there? I have always felt a love for the Scandinavian and Nordic way of life and having spent a few summers and winters in Finland I can say that I could easily adjust to living there and some of the other countries in that part of Europe that I have briefly visited. Would I have the nerve, the guts, and the bravery to write a novel set in Finland? No. Not at this stage in my life anyway, I think I have a lot of developing to go through before taking up that challenge.  

Perhaps that is why I have a problem writing away from home, because no matter how comfortable I am, how much I am enjoying myself, I am simply not good enough to write about other cultures. If, as I said above I want to write about Wales, would a few conversations with my Welsh grandmother and a few hours in the local library (or Wikipedia, ahem, cough, cough) give me the authority and confidence to write about Wales and make it convincing? At the moment I feel it wouldn’t, I would need to go and live there for a while (please watch some documentaries or interviews with Kingsley Amis now that I have mentioned Wales). No matter how much I tell myself that the point of being a writer – that we are free to damn well make it up – is to use the imagination, I need more time to build a skilled foundation of writing technique and ability. It is easy to think of examples where great literature has been created away from home, for instance J.D Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye while he was fighting in the second world war but what about Stephen King who sets his books in his home state of Maine, or Nabokov (Russian of course) who specifically used the period of time he spent in ‘Middle America’ for the section in Lolita where Humbert describes the thousands of miles travelling motel to motel, state to state. I also think often about Charles Dickens writing little short stories or essays about his nightly walks through the streets of London. He breathed in the settings he was writing about.

Let’s not ignore my year in Spain. Several people have asked me if I have been inspired to write a story set here and the answer is yes, but only theoretically. I haven’t come up with a specific idea for a story but I know one day I will. However, do I think that I have the ability to write a Spanish story? Not a chance of it. No way. I have no idea what it is like to grow up here, the impact of the civil war, the schooling, the cultural calendar…I don’t even speak the language! How the hell could I attempt something I understand so little. Again, it is the same thing with Britain – wouldn’t my ‘Spanish’ novel actually be my ‘Majorcan’ novel, or my ‘Murcian’ novel? I mean, yes a year is a fairly decent amount of time, but I haven’t travelled anywhere except the two places I am staying at. I haven’t been to Madrid, or to Valencia, Seville, Salamanca…it feels like the same issue.

This is a huge subject and I don’t want to go on because this could be a hundred thousand word essay in no time, there are enough library sections devoted to nationalism and plenty of PhD theses on ‘identity’, ‘patrotism’, ‘culture’, ‘diveristy’ and so on to keep you occupied for a lifetime but the reason I outline a few points in my own little bloggish way is that, without thinking, I guess I have always assumed I know what it is to be British. Now that I have spent eight months away from ‘home’ and have another four to go whilst constantly thinking about a ‘British Novel’ I am not so sure. My friends and my family are home, but so is something else and that something else is what I have been struggling with when trying to dissect the underlying theme of this supposed novel. It is not as easy as I thought. Maybe I will find out in the writing?

Without going into detail about the plot because, ahem, I don’t fully know it myself yet…well that’s a lie, I do actually, but I just don’t want to say…I know that one of the most significant aspects of my book will be the effect of ‘place’ on the characters when they visit. They will be specifically going to locations in order to discuss certain topics. I should say that it is not the physical descriptions of places I am having trouble with; if we are being honest I could always use photos, Google maps, etc. It is more that I have the strongest urge to actually visit these places, to write while I am there, even if I know (some) of them like the back of my hand. I want to describe what I am feeling and seeing and hearing in-situ and it is quite a disconcerting and disappointing feeling to find that I am unable to reproduce those feelings (that I know I have) while not physically present. There is this demanding sense of authenticity that I know is likely I will never achieve yet I want to aim for.

So I have made an agreement with myself (who says isolation makes you crazy). I am going to focus on the short stories I have started (three long pieces and a further two collections of three short pieces each, that’s nine in total) and get them to at least second or third draft stage each. I want to be in a position where I can publish them when I get home more or less immediately. Let’s say that takes up September. I hope it will be quicker but let’s say that for now. That will leave me October, November and December to start the novel. I will set aside the other shorts I have got ready in note form and try my best to make a start on the novel and see how I progress. I am worried about it, but perhaps it is just the heat of the summer playing with my mind, perhaps it is the amount of time I have already spent on the shorts taking up too much of my concentration… Maybe I don’t believe in anything I have just written, maybe it is just an elaborate confusion my mind has conjured up by way of obfuscation – my way of simply putting off starting the novel because I am scared and because I love distraction…

So that’s the plan for the rest of the year, as I have said previously, August has taken its toll on me, it sounds crazily ungracious but the heat is too much for me and I cannot do much of anything, which don’t get me wrong, is not a bad thing in itself, I’m happily enjoying the sun but the nagging sense of losing writing time is starting to hurt and I’m looking forward to getting into a writing rhythm.

One last thing, for me personally with my limited range of reading, the benchmark for writing of ‘place’ is Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (which I read about ten years back for my studies but only upon checking Wikipedia now to refresh myself have found out he died at 33 years of age – I am 34 – and he had by then produced a significant amount of work, what an upsetting thing to learn, early death is so sad) it is such a moving book and if you want to feel the Scottish north in every word and sentence then get it now.

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That reminds me. I could have talked about language/dialect in the same way. Having now spent some time in Spain and trying to learn the basics of their language and having once learnt how to say Happy Christmas in Finnish I have a much deeper love and appreciation of language and I have blogged about this previously, but it is pretty obvious that I could not write in a dialect convincingly for certain parts of the UK never mind Spain. If you read Sunset Song you will understand what a master-class that is and how it should be done. If I had a character from Newcastle and I was writing in direct dialogue then I would need help, no two ways about it. So again, if I am writing about Britishness I will probably be writing in the language I know, that of London-ish…

And do you know what, this blog is making out I know about London! That is a false premise to start with! I am writing about my London but for sure I want to find out more and that is perhaps also reason for writing, maybe it’s my own adventure through my characters…I want to explore and investigate the parts of my home city that aren’t accessible to me, never have been and likely never will be. The levels of society I am not privy to, or the secret gardens, back streets, bunkers, vaults and swipe card access doors that are away from the tourist attractions. The society clubs and the criminal gangs, the wealth and the poverty, the languages and the traditions, the immigrant communities and the racists, the powerful and the powerless, the food and the hunger, the diversity and the plain, the history and the future, the hidden and the obvious…

Confidence in your subject is a hard thing to explain, I know my part of Britain inside and out yet it’s not about me, contrary to what I just said above, it’s all about what my characters want, what their backgrounds are, what their sense of history is, of culture, of home, of family, not me…it is exciting to think what that may be. So perhaps I should forget the term Britishness altogether and just write as hard as I can to create a story that just so happens to be set in London, some people may associate a sense of Britishness as they read it, others may not, let the characters speak for themselves and the reader can too...who am I to say what they should take from my writing. I imagine it will be one of the hardest challenges I have ever undertaken with the end result pretty much guaranteed to not be very good, but I’m looking forward to it never the less.

Take care everyone,

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  1. All images taken from
  2. That last sentence was a little bit of a white lie…of course I will feed a little bit of me into it…for instance while I have been away in Spain I have read that the decision has been made that London buses will no longer accept cash payments…I think I might throw in my opinion on that one ;)
  3. I purposely wrote this without looking at the following article I will read it in a day or two and probably cringe.
  4. This week I was nominated for the ice bucket challenge, I thought I would upload the video here as well as my Facebook page.  Here are the links to the US and UK charity sites where you can get involved:



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