Thursday 31 March 2011


A few days ago I was on the-island-in-the-middle-of-nowhere celebrating the news that a colleague there, a young Norwegian translator, had just got a grant that would enable her to live for a year translating from the Russian, and among the company was a Finnish short-story writer whose income derives less from the stories than from a state scholarship . . . I came home yesterday, the day of the long knives, when the Poetry Book Society and the Poetry Trust and Arc and others were cast adrift by the Arts Council. Is this the real world, or was my island – and its walled town with one main square, one main food shop, a fire station the size of a small garage – the real world? Neither is more real than the other, but this one is certainly more complicated, competitive, messy, mean. Over the past three years I’ve made two failed applications to ACE for grants for CBe, both times for sums under £5K, dutifully making up answers to those questions on the form that are there simply for the sake of form-filling; yesterday I read (where? I’ve lost the link) that ACE spends £27 million on rent for its own buildings and other unlikely sums before it even gets round to distribution; and I suspect that if ACE applied to itself for money to stay alive it too would be turned down. An appropriate response is to hold a party. I’m thinking of having one, a fundraising one, in the summer.

Saturday 26 March 2011

Baltic (5)

Outside the tourist season, which is to say most of the year, life here is quiet and slow. People have time to do unnecessary but nice things, such as decorate their postboxes. And me? I have written about a couple whose arguments in public are photographed by Japanese tourists and about a family in the 1950s who travel around in a hearse and about rain, and am currently in discussions with a man who can walk on the ceiling. Coming home next week will be a culture shock.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Baltic (4): Falun red/brown

You know how every city is a different colour? And how every country has its own colour palette? To do with the light, the climate, the landscape. Sweden, this bit of it anyway, has a lovely pale yellow and a deep, warm blue – not the yellow and blue of the flag or the Ikea logo at all, but colours that even when new seem to have had any sharpness weathered out of them. There’s also a deep reddish brown, everywhere – window frames, doors, whole houses, in places in the countryside whole villages. It’s derived (quote from ‘from the naturally-existing pigments in the earth which can only be found in the copper mine in Falun, Sweden. These pigments have a unique mineral composition which includes iron ochre, silicon dioxide, copper and zinc, all of which help preserve and protect wood.’ And it’s pretty damn equivalent to Pantone 484, which is the colour used most frequently by CBe (see the website home page, the logo and booklist; and the print catalogues), so no wonder I’m feeling at home here.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Baltic (3)

The town library is good, even if the English section is a bit like a second-hand bookstore: what you’re looking for isn’t there, but on the other hand there’s plenty you didn’t realise you wanted to read until now. Last week I read the story collection by Wells Tower, who is annoyingly young and ridiculously talented. But. Then I read Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, a swashbuckling yarn set around the Caspian Sea in the 10th century, which is terrific, and here’s a quote from the Afterword (you can quote it back to anyone who tells you to write from what you know, from your own experience) in which he recalls that most of his early stories ‘featured unarmed Americans undergoing the eternal fates of contemporary short-story characters – disappointment, misfortune, loss, hard enlightenment, moments of bleak grace. Divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate between fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce – I guess that about covers it. Story, more or less, of my life . . . I’m not saying – let me be clear about this – I am not saying that I disparage or repudiate my early work, or the genre (late-century naturalism) it mostly exemplifies . . . It’s just that here, in Gentlemen of the Road as in some of its recent predecessors, you catch me in the act of trying, as a writer, to do what many of the characters in my earlier stories were trying, longing, ready to do: I have gone off in search of a little adventure.’

Why is Orhan Pamuk – in the photograph, captioned ‘wittering’, at the top of the Observer review of his book about the novel (the online version anyway, I don’t know about the print edition) – standing in the doorway to the fire escape on the old Faber building in Queen Square? That’s the smoking place. I know this because I worked on the top floor of that building for several years, and made daily use of that doorway and the little rusting balcony.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Baltic (2)

More photos from Visby. Little to report (that is the point of being here). Other than that down by the sea the other day I stumbled across a dead swan, which has to be a doomy Ibsenite symbol for something or other. That the town library of Visby (population 23,000) is superb: fine modern building, cafĂ©, and shelves more generously and intelligently stocked (including books in English) than in any equivalent library I’ve come across in the UK. That I have watched more films (on my laptop) than I have seen in the cinema in the past several years. That I am becoming a monk.

Thursday 10 March 2011


This is the view from my window, in the late afternoon: not just the cathedral but the sunset too. Never have I been so closely jammed up against a holy edifice; this is between me and god, with nature thrown in for good measure. The town of Visby is very cold, very quiet, and astonishingly beautiful. I came here partly out of curiosity, to see what would happen if, after many months of busy-ness, I got up in the morning with only a blank white page in front of me. The answer may be nothing. And I’m not knocking nothing, not at all. I have settled into a rhythm of sleep, coffee, long walks by the sea, saunas. I lie and sweat for long periods on the top bench in the sauna in the pose, it occurred to me yesterday, of Marat assassinated by Charlotte Corday.