In September I travelled to the cathedral city of Wells to speak at the Bishop’s Palace during the http://www.wellsfestivalofliterature.org.uk/ Wells Festival of Literature. I was bursting with pride to be asked to do so. I had once been a prize-winner of their short story competition and my brief was to give heart to the audience of writers, most of which had entered this years award, by sharing my success in writing since then.
I told them about the day I’d received my prize. Salley Vickers had presented the cheques and had gone on to speak, telling us about the writing of Miss Garnet’s Angel, her first book. She’d spoken of how she’s had started this book, with a strong idea of the main character and her story. But although she had a story, she didn’t yet have a novel, there was no ‘glint of gold’ within it, no twist that would attract a reader.
Salley Vickers confessed she’d had the basic idea for Miss Garnet’s Angel, in her mind for years, without finding the spark that would turn it into a novel. Then she went to Venice, and got lost in the back streets, fell upon the most beautiful church. Inside, a panelled painting, recounting the story of Tobias and the angel. This was her ‘Glint of gold; a flicker of inspiration’.
Vickers says…“the very old tale of Tobias, who travels to Medea unaware he is accompanied by the Archangel Raphael [is] powerful and evocative. It has the quality of a myth or fairy story, seeming to mean much more than its literal sense. In 'Miss Garnet's Angel' I tell the contemporary story of Julia Garnet, a retired school teacher, who comes to Venice prompted by the death of a friend. She finds the Guardi panels...”
The majority of writers find it hard to compose something new. We are all waiting for the glint of gold - the flicker of inspiration that comes out of the blue. So when I read Jon McGregor’s account of writing his first novel, I noticed he’d had a similar experience.
Jon McGregor burst onto the scene in 2002 by being long-listed for the booker for his first novel, If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things. Once again, Bloomsbury had taken a risk with a new writer and it had paid off for them, both in sales for this book and the books he’s continue to write; interesting, original, contentious, often disturbing novels.
McGregor is like Marmite no doubt about it. The reviewer's were soon at each others throats over him. The Telegraph, 17th September 2002 said; "You won't read anything much more poignant than this." McGregor was awarded 2002 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and a heap of other prizes for this book, yet Julie Myerson, in The Guardian, spat vitriol, as if it was her raison d’etre to make sure everyone hated the book. She called it doom-laden…oddly ungripping, colourless, unfocused, undoubtedly well-intentioned. She said the narrative voice was pompous, with a fatal lack of humour, its lifeblood sucked out by a Virginia Woolfish adherence to the fey, the pretend, the fortuitously elegant. She quotes the text; “An elderly, working-class man racked with lung cancer laughs and then "clutches at his throat, head tipped back, mouth gaping, silent, staring at the ceiling like a tourist in the Sistine Chapel", and says, “if the alarm bells haven't already rung countless times, then they certainly do at that sudden, gratuitous lurch into the world of art history. This is a novel where the contrived metaphor, the struggling simile, the romantic reference all come first. She had a book out herself at the time, and it felt like she didn’t think there was room in bookstores for both of them. I was expecting her to pull out a revolver any moment and mumble something about leaving this town by noontide. Even so, it did put me off reading the book at that time.
Jon McGregor was born in Bermuda in 1976, grew up in Norfolk, went to Bradford University and began getting his short stories published, including on Radio Four. An agent heard the reading and contacted him, suggesting he write a novel. Don’t all new writers dream of such a contact? Once you have your agent on your side, it does get that little bit easier. Even so, you need your basic idea, characters, setting, plot...and a glint of gold.
McGregor says… “In the summer of 1997, a boy was shot in Bolton, round about the same time that Diana died. This got me thinking about the significance that gets attached to people's lives and deaths, about perceived levels of tragedy and newsworthiness. I was interested in the anonymity of city life, the fact that I still didn't know my neighbours after three years, the damage that transience does to the community. And a few almost-terrible incidents in the street I was living in at the time gave me the magic.” He began to write If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things on a narrowboat in Nottingham.
“The character of the narrator - and therefore the hook and drive of the novel as a coherent whole - didn't come until May 2000, when I went to Japan to visit a friend and he showed me the Buddhist temple at Kamakura, where they have a shrine for mothers of stillborn/aborted children. This sparked off a chain of thought about what a responsibility and a fear pregnancy must be, which gradually rolled into a storyline able to tie together what was happening in the street. So in a sense I only really started writing the novel then.”
Once I’d learnt that McGregor had been visited by the ‘glint of gold, I wanted to read the book. Unlike Myerson, I was gripped and absorbed from the first page, because of the clever trick McGregor plays on that first page. He sets up an incident, and only by reading the entire book can you know what that dreadful moment really contained.
I thought the book was as close to a kind of poetry as it is to prose. Its opening is evocative of inner city life everywhere. We’re in a North of England street, terraced housing packed with people going through the motions of everyday existence. This is the delight of reading Henry James all over again; although McGregor dips into their physical activities rather than their minds, and through this ‘show, don’t tell’ structure we see all of them. McGregor writes…“You must always look with both of your eyes and listen with both of your ears. He says this is a very big world and there are many many things you could miss if you are not careful. There are remarkable things all the time, right in front of us, but our eyes have like the clouds over the sun and our lives are paler and poorer if we do not see them for what they are. If nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?” Nina Milton http://kitchentablewriters.blogspot.com