A book I ordered had arrived at Tunstall Library, Nat Tate – An American Artist by William Boyd. It is a spoof biography, I’m reading it as part of my researching as I write Traitor to the Cause, which is a novel written as if it is an autobiography. I am also reading The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s autobiography, but written as if of her best friend.
After picking that up I went to look in the literature/poetry section as I wanted a book about poetic forms, someone having borrowed my Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms many years ago and never been heard of again. Looking along the shelf the library numbering system created a lovely clash, next to Teach Yourself Creative Writing was a book called Working Ferrets.
As I wandered back to my flat with Working Ferrets in my bag alongside two William Boyd books, it led me to think how important the unexpected clash of objects, people, events creates a tension or humour in a piece of work. As (in my mind) a visual artist this is used all the time, whether to highlight or counterbalance. Much of surrealism depends on these oppositional elements. British humour has for a long time, look at how many plays and films depend on a working class character moving in the upper class and vice versa or the mistaken venue.
In my poem on the events around personal grief, Then Nothing to Do, I used this technique. The poem is in two parts set around the deaths of my father and mother 25 years apart. One of the things I find around these periods is how in times of the deepest grief things happen as a counterpoint.
When my father died my parents lived in Llanfair Caereinion in mid Wales. I rang the local funeral director and was told by his wife that he was ‘…out with the pigs’. Of course there were not enough people living in the large rural area to warrant a full time funeral director, but the contrast and breaking of a ‘spell’ made me and my mother (who was totally devastated), smile, it brought in a reality to the situation.
Over the years I have read quite a few autobiographies. It is an odd genre, how many are really and truly honest. How many of us could write about ourselves with the distance and understanding that a good biography has. I don’t read the footballers or stars writings, though I did read a Stanley Matthews’ 1947 book about his growing up as there are members of my family mentioned. One of my favourites is Luis Bunuel’s My Last Breath. In it he writes of his lifelong quest to find the perfect cocktail and at the very end of his life how he may fool people and ask for a priest, just to have the final laugh.
Gunter Grass has written two very different autobiographies. The first Peeling the Onion is a fairly straight story of his life up to the writing and publication of The Tin Drum. He writes about the fact he was a member of the Hitler Youth and a teenage soldier at the very end of the war, and how he was brainwashed by the Nazi regime. There is a lovely bit where he is hiding in a ditch with another young soldier who plans to become a priest, and thinks this may have been the current Pope!
In his second autobiography he moves into a very different sphere. The Box: Tales from the Darkroom, in this he uses the fantastical realism of his novels. The book is a set of gatherings where his children dissect his faults over meals which he lovingly describes. They use photographs that a woman who has lived with them has taken on her very special box camera, and show another hidden truth from often impossible angles. It is one of my favourite books of any genre and I realise I could slip towards it as my character in Traitor, Vincent, is a photographer opening up the deep yellow Kodak photographic paper boxes to find his past!
Perhaps a new line of work for Vincent will develop from reading Working Ferrets!
Today’s photograph is of the magnificent Victorian cast iron sign for Tunstall Library. A sunny mild windy day, I’ve made it black and white as it shows the workmanship better. The other two are inside the Library showing the linked motifs.
To read Then Nothing To Do go to https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnx0aW1kaWdnbGVzfGd4OjUxMzQ0ZDRjMzJhMDU0ZTM