Second Person

Tim Norwich photo

Earlier this year I was asked to write a personal piece about Ian McEwan and Norwich. It was to be part of a project, called 26 Norwich Writers, marking that fine place becoming England’s first City of Literature. You can read more about the project, and my approach to the McEwan piece, over here. And you can read the twenty-five other stories here. My contribution:

10am

Dear I,

For days I’ve been sitting at my desk, wandering the borders of my subject. Namely, you. I was going around in circles, as blank as the other side of this postcard, my inner editor made anxious by the volumes of words already written about you by others. Then I realised I needed to take the two of us – writer and reader – away from the page and into the world.

To the shared ground of Norwich, of course. We were both at the university. You were partly why I chose to study Literature there. I was interested in writing as verb, as well as writing as noun. So I’m travelling east on Greater Anglia, hoping Norwich will help me find some words about you. I want to see where your writing takes me today; to discover new corners together. Perhaps your presence will draw out the character of this City of Literature.

At this point I should explain that I’m going to bypass my inner editor and write raw. Ten postcards; sent to you on the hour. Write, stamp, post. It also seemed only fair to offer you an image too, so I’m carrying a Polaroid camera. Write, click, develop, glue, stamp, post. We’re coming into the station. Time to begin.

 

11am

Dear I,

Walking to the taxi rank, I let instinct choose where I go first. I found myself at UEA. Attached, a photograph of the frosted glass door of the School of Literature, Drama & Creative Writing – your student base some 40 years ago. I soon understood why I had brought myself here. Amongst other things, this place is about learning how to start; about forming and testing first thoughts that become the flowing logic of an essay, story or article.

One night you went home from here and wrote the first piece to be produced on a British university creative writing course. “It was about seven o’clock in the evening,” you said, “and I promised myself I would not leave this room, and I would not go to sleep, until I had written a short story.” That’s another way to overcome a block – lock the door. Ten hours later the appropriately titled Conversation with a Cupboard Man existed.

Standing here today, I’m surrounded by notice boards displaying the suggestive paraphernalia of literary academia. Fragments of poems. Reading lists. Portraits of novelists. Details of prizes, bursaries, festivals. They’re inviting me to think about you in terms of Literature. But I feel an urge to move from art to science.

 

12pm

As you can see from the photo, I’ve walked to the science end of the main block – Lasdun’s monumental Teaching Wall. I find you share my distrust of those who separate art from science: “I’m sometimes asked by a literary intellectual in an on-stage discussion – often through the medium of a puzzled frown – why I’m interested in science… Science is simply organised human curiosity and we should all take part. It’s a matter of beauty. Just as we treasure beauty in our music and literature, so there’s beauty to be found in the exuberant invention of science.”

The Roman combination of grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, arithmetic, music and geometry now seems daringly universal. What happened to our faith in the open mind? When did we start to prefer specialising to connecting? Perhaps we would have lost fewer years in the mirrored halls of postmodernism if the humanities had maintained its relationship with science.

PS I’ve dropped the ‘Dear I’. You know who you are and it was in danger of looking like a cheap conceit.

 

1pm

Thinking about science led me to the path connecting the university with the research park. There’s serious curiosity at work here, particularly around the genes of plants and animals. The park is thriving, and Project 26 will see a further £26 million of public funds invested. My own curiosity drew me to some intriguing greenhouses (photo), to the disquiet of a security guard. I explained my brief. He shook his head and politely invited me to leave, suggesting that to be mistaken for a protestor would be unfortunate. As you point out in Solar, along with the pursuit of truth, science is a contested space; a meeting point of politics, morality and economics.

Walking the perimeter fence, I found some vocabulary to enjoy. Companies located here include Bionica (‘technologies and solutions for the Life Sciences’); Inspiralis (‘products and services for the pharmaceutical industry’); and Intelligent Fingerprinting Ltd. (‘proprietary detection reagents and standardised protocols for use in forensics laboratories, scene of incident analysis in policing and homeland security.’). Here too is Spectral Edge, which is developing a method ‘for visualising hyper- and multi-spectral images in colour’. And there’s Virtual Past, which combines ‘state-of the-art computer modelling techniques with historical research to create dynamic new ways to enhance visitor experiences’. All good material for a thriller.

 

2pm

I walked into the city, to Cathedral Close, still thinking about art and science. Of course, you’ve done what a novelist should do: integrated theory into practice, facts into fiction. Hence the line of scientist protagonists in your novels – science writer Joe Rose in Enduring Love; neurosurgeon Henry Perowne in Saturday; physicist Michael Beard in Solar. Then, walking through St Ethelbert’s gate, I saw again that remarkable carving of a man and dragon (photo). The former – his sword drawn, shield raised – is resilient in the face of bestial evil. And from there I was taken to Black Dogs.

For June Tremaine, being attacked by two wild dogs came to be understood as an encounter with evil and with God. While the incident acts as a catalyst for her superstition, her husband Bernard hardens his logic. Their relationship can’t survive the tension between faith and reason. Drawing on centuries of legend about devil dogs (Norfolk has its own, Black Shuck), the novel always reads to me like an ancient tale recast in post-war Europe. It also demonstrates why we need art as well as science. Fictions provide a starting point for rethinking the world. Free of the need for practical aims and concrete conclusions, they invite us to imagine what might be. Black Dogs deepens our humanity by asking us to consider dark questions from different perspectives. Of course, for answers we need reason or faith.

 

3pm

The linguistic menagerie of Norwich streets doesn’t include a black dog. There’s a Golden Dog Lane. Upper Goat Lane. Wounded Hart Lane. Unicorn Yard. Alongside these creatures, connections back to faith and legend: Adam and Eve Yard. Damocles Court. Catherine Wheel Opening. Tombland (photo of the glorious Tombland News sign attached).

I can only find one thoroughfare named after a writer – Rider Haggard Road. Maybe it’s time for Ian McEwan Yard. Enduring Love Lane? Atonement Court? Perhaps another handsome walkway should be built over the Wensum and named the Ian McEwan Willing Suspension of Disbelief Bridge. I can imagine the letters to the Eastern Daily Press. Like science, names are contested space. I hear talk of plans to replace the signs saying Welcome to Norwich – A fine city with Norwich – England’s other city. Apparently, it sounds more contemporary. You once remarked “writers have known for centuries that Norwich is a dreamy city.” If the slogan really has to change, I suggest Norwich – A place apart.

 

4pm

The vernacular graphic language here – signs, posters, notices, graffiti – is rather modest. Aside from a renga that flows alongside the Wensum at St James, striking words rarely venture into the public realm.

But then I wandered into a car park near St Benedicts and before me stood a derelict building covered in writing. Reading from the top – beneath the guttering – I realised it was Thomas More’s Utopia. A passer-by told me artist Rory McGrath painted the entire text of More’s ‘golden little book’ on this redundant Eastern Electricity site. As the photo shows, it’s an ugly monument to a work of art. But there’s something powerful here, something unsettling. It asks interesting questions. What does this say about the world we inhabit? What’s the best way to read a building?

 

5pm

It was time for a drink so I went to the Maids Head Hotel, where you and Malcolm Bradbury sometimes got together for tutorials. “We met like spies,” said Bradbury, “in pubs and teashops.” The hotel was library-quiet, and I wanted to avoid this turning into historical stalking, so I moved on to a bar.

Barman: “What can I get you?”

Me: “You do cocktails?”

Barman: “We try.”

Me: “I’d like an Ian McEwan.”

Barman: “What’s in it?”

Me: “Not sure. Make something up.”

Barman: “Anything?”

Me: “Yep, but it needs to be dark, with an unexpected twist.”*

You can’t complain about me distilling your essence like this. Novelists are always using food and booze to indicate character. Think of the esurient guzzling you force on poor Michael Beard in Solar; the dietic equivalent of your narrator’s moralising on his professional venality and sexual hypocrisy. I forgive you. My ultimate test of a character is whether they live with me when the book is closed. And here I sit with my drink, thinking about Beard. And June and Bernard. And Briony Tallis.

* An Espresso McEwan: vodka, kahlua, crème de cacao, espresso, coffee beans, lemon peel twist (photo).

 

6pm

Walking back to the station, I diverted my course and took the path that runs between the walls of Cathedral Close and the Wensum. I was in search of a door (photo). In Sweet Tooth, you have Serena – who’s visiting her family home in an East Anglian cathedral close – find her way to ‘an old oak door that never used to be locked. It pleased me that it was unlocked now, still squeaked on its hinge. It took me by surprise, this walk across an ancient past.’

I lived opposite here, in a shared house with fellow students. One evening I heard that my housemate, Kate, had missed lectures. That was out of character. Her bedroom door was locked and something told me I must break it down. She was in bed – cold and still; accompanied by a bottle of whisky, a half-empty box of paracetamols and a note that said ‘I’m so sorry’. An unforgettable sentence.

Being back here has reminded me of the great difference between people and characters. Stories require characters to be consistent. If they change we must know why. A great character – those that live away from the page – may well be complex, even contradictory, but they have to be knowable. People are only partly knowable. We have unexpressed feelings, irrational drives, fears that are hidden even from ourselves. From these inconsistencies come actions that help to define us. As I walked back along the riverbank a line from Atonement came to mind: “A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.”

 

7pm.

A photograph taken from the window of my train would show a fine diesel locomotive, number 08874, on the opposite platform. According to the boilerplate, her name is ‘Catherine’. It’s not only writers who love to create characters.

Now we’ve reached this point together, I must thank you for indulging the postcard idea. Those written-on-the-spot words and the photographs exist, but were never sent. Just imagine trying to find ten letterboxes. And all those sticky Polaroids. Besides, my internal editor would never let raw material see the light of day. It was a device to get me going. I wrote as I moved, hour by hour, but those words weren’t meant for anyone but me. Dear I. It’s in the shaping and reshaping of words – in making connections and addressing the anxieties about meaning – that I hope to find something I can share.

So I brought Ian McEwan to Norwich and he took me to some unexpected places. If you travel with a writer in your mind anywhere can become a City of Literature.

Tim

Utopia

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