You live on Hessle Road in Hull, albeit on the posh end. How does it help you as a writer, living in the community you are writing about?
Being able to ‘walk’ the setting for my books is invaluable. Even though much has changed in some parts, there are still remnants of docklands, trawler offices and of course the trawlermen’s pubs, where a yarn is never more than a pint of bitter away. When I was a kid starting out in journalism one of my old mentors told me, “People are news.” – Well, the people of Hessle Road, on my doorstep, are a news resource bar none. I write in a tiny room at the top of my house opposite a park donated to the city by an Edwardian trawler magnate. On rainy days squalls and storms somehow enhance the atmosphere when I write, glancing from my little window to the legacy of Sir Christopher Pickering – especially when writing about ships at sea. In the early hours on winter nights fog horns still sound.
Lilian Bilocca makes for a striking hero in The Headscarf Revolutionaries. Were you conscious of pulling her out of history and into the limelight, as a model for others?
I was very conscious that Lillian Bilocca, in common with many women of her class, were overlooked on the whole. This story was particularly so. The Headscarf Revolutionaries worked to remedy that, and then the documentaries, poetry and music inspired by the book. This public art renewed interest in the community. I like to find stories that have been overlooked or under-appreciated and bring them to the fore. Lillian and her comrades were both under-appreciated and overlooked. Not any more though.
What’s as close as you came to encountering Lilian Bilocca ‘in the flesh’?
In a feature I wrote for the Manchester-based arts website Northern Soul, I recalled my only encounter with Lil. I was a young reporter and had arrived in Hull when the industry was in decline. I was sent to interview the mother of a lad lost at sea. After the interview the photographer with me, an old timer, arranged to meet me in the fisherman’s pub, “Rayners” on Hessle Road. Reg, the photographer, pointed out a big woman at a corner table. She had a bottle of stout in front of her. I glanced at her as we left the pub and the snapper told me, “That’s the dame who fought for the trawlermen.” In the car on the way back to the office he told me her story and I remember thinking then it would be a great book. A mere thirty years later and … hey presto!
You’re writing about tragedies – trawlermen who were lost at sea. Those who loved them are still around to
grieve and have memories. How did that fact affect your writing?
I am very aware of the responsibility of writing about real people with relatives (and often themselves) still living. You owe them the duty of truth. Nothing more. In The Luckiest Thirteen I told of a man who died in the rescue, falling from a rope ladder into raging seas. His death was a harsh, cold one. His shipmates watched helplessly as he drifted to his doom. The details were tough to write, let alone read – yet when I met his son he thanked me. He was able to put the uncertainty that had haunted his dreams for forty-five years to rest.
Events such as Hull’s triple trawler tragedy move into folklore. Were there any facts that were part of the local narrative that your book had to correct?
Yes! Lillian Bilocca never met Harold Wilson! – this has become the urban myth I most have to dispel. Wilson was in the USA at the time of the Hessle Road women’s lobbying of Parliament. Other than that, the good thing about recent history is you can speak to folk who were there as well as check out the veracity of what they say via other resources, such as media, radio and TV archives. The latter can literally give voice to your characters. I know what Lillian and her comrades sounded like and that is a real asset when writing about people who existed.
The title The Luckiest Thirteen focused on the survivors of the St Finbarr, rather than those who died. Why?
Like the mountaineer’s answer to ‘Why do you climb mountains?’ it is, ‘because they are there.’ In other tragedies the survivors are usually nil. In the Triple Trawler Disaster in The Headscarf Revolutionaries – there was one. In The Luckiest Thirteen – twelve men from a crew of twenty-five perished. But there was a two-day rescue in fierce Newfoundland seas on Christmas Day and beyond. Showing the lives of those thirteen men is a tribute to the bravery of those who saved them. Showing the gift that the brave gave; the gift of a life lived to old age. And again, we are back with my old mentor’s adage, ‘people are news’ – and the news of these people’s lives that are owed to the courage of their rescuers is the best tribute I can pay.
Your books are incredibly filmic – we’re inside the heat of the drama and experience the course of maritime disasters in vivid detail. Are you a secret trawlerman? How did you come by all those details?
I am a reporter. The re-tell is in the details. I know lots of trawlermen and folk from the community. It’s their story. I just get to type it up. I don’t have the courage to have been a trawlerman. I am pleased that I only have to write about it! As for the filmic aspect of my writing, a smart book editor told me to write as if looking through a lens and reporting what I see. This is something I now tell my students in my creative writing classes.
What’s your process of drawing stories out of people to share in your book?
Make them comfortable. Chat, don’t interrogate. When folk are at their ease they will unpack the story for you. Bear in mind, they don’t think they have anything of interest. It’s their day-to-day life. If they had such awareness they’d be in competition! I am always at pains to listen and … be kind. You catch more flies with honey…
What’s your relationship to the stories in your books – is it the storyteller, the custodian? It was moving to attend packed audiences in Hull Minster, in which the stories seemed to become ‘our’ stories. And then with the likes of Reg Meuross, some storytelling baton has been passed on.
I am always moved when art begets art. And The Headscarf Revolutionaries certainly did that. It inspired two radio documentaries, one BBC TV documentary, poetry by Helen Mort, Music by Joe Solo and Reg Meuross and is in development with the acclaimed director Mark Herman (Brassed Off, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Little Voice etc.). I toured England with Reg with a multi-media theatre piece, with his song cycle at its heart. I am also working with a songwriter with music inspired by The Luckiest Thirteen too. So, I suppose I am more than a storyteller in as much as I get a wider audience that just that of my readers. An old skipper who advises me paid me what I think was a great compliment. He said, “Brian you are our community’s clarion.” I like that. A clarion. Yes, I’ll take that all day.
When you’re researching your books, is there a point when you say ‘Yes that’s it. I see how to shape this into a book now.’
There’s a point when I can almost recite the research. Then I write. Unlike when I write fiction – especially short prose and poetry. With this latest book there were some sad personal issues early on that set me back – but now I am writing and can recite the research. Also, every nonfiction writer needs a bit of luck. Mine came via a very old man. Across 30 years he was involved in the government investigations into the mystery ship Gaul – which is at the core of my latest work, Spynet: The Enigma of the Gaul. The old fellow in question had kept files that filled a room, which he gave to me via a friend. Contacts are important too. As is luck, but I also find the harder I work, the luckier I get.
There’s another Brian Lavery famous for writing maritime history. Are you in touch with each other at all?
We have never met. Although Radio 4 almost got us mixed up and I missed out on a bigger cheque when they realised their mistake! The other Brian is also Scottish, writes about maritime matters, but is far more encumbered by success than I. He is also the reason I had to find a middle initial, something which previously I did not have. As a result, I used “W” as a wee tribute to my father, William.
We asked writer-readers to write us a reader-diary of their reading journey through Chris Westoby’s The Fear Talking. Joseph Coward writes this crackingly honest first piece. [To meet Chris in conversation with Edmund Hurst, live on Zoom 18.00 GMT Dec 3rd, email email@example.com]
Chris Westoby is the same age as me. He and I left school within a year or two of each other, in the same country. I recognise his social circle, his teenage haunts; I recall with cringing clarity the same fumbling sexual experiences, the same destructive rampages masquerading as house parties. And we both suffer from anxiety. His summary of his experience of our mental and physiological affliction is The Fear Talking, a memoir documenting the early days of his disorder. My summary of the experience of reading the book, as someone with the same thing, is this diary. I’m going to read it in seven days, and write about it every day.
Anxiety for me is a cold, billowing cloud that starts in my chest, a blue-black shroud of ink that stains everything it touches, and it grows and grows. Sometimes the sensation is brought on by what’s happening around me, sometimes by nothing at all. I’ve been like this since my mid teens, I think.
I immediately recognise the double life Chris assumes in order to seem normal: every day he lies to his parents, silently suffers an overbearing girlfriend, and pretends to go to school while really hiding out in fields, or his local Tesco. To survive as an anxiety sufferer is to stay out of sight, and, when you have to be seen, to pretend to be someone you’re not, someone else.
At the end of Day One I leave Chris at a university convention, where he is frozen in place, failing to see a future beyond the looming possibilities of an ever-continuous present, a vertiginous, vertical Now.
Every day I wake up and ask myself the same two questions: ‘where am I?’ and ‘how do I feel today?’ The effect of constantly having to assess my emotional and physiological response to the room, the world around me, is exhausting. The anxiety has grabbing tentacles that latch onto negative thoughts, stretching them them into shapes more odd and terrifying than they were before. I think of the ‘cold supple octopus’ that Bulgakov’s Master feels clenching around his heart as he burns his manuscript; when I’m at my worst I certainly want to destroy whatever I happen to be working on.
Chris sets about destroying his relationship with his girlfriend who, as much as she might be smothering him, seems to genuinely care about him. I can empathise with Chris’s pushing away of even the most well-meaning people. When people are around, he writes, ‘they see me, they know me, they can talk about me’.
But I start to notice differences in the way we process the presence of others: Chris refers to his fellow passengers on the bus he takes every day as chavs, crazies, dole mums; an old lady is described as cadaverous, in cruel detail. Despite our shared condition, we’re not the same person; but I recognise Chris’s insanely cheery feeling as he almost wilfully destroys his future, or at least changes it unalterably. It can feel nice; you say to yourself, ‘I’m in control.’
Reading an anxiety book does nothing for your anxiety. (How do I feel today?)
I see more of Chris’s parents. His mum says that if he takes a year out of college and gets a job he’ll never go back. I’m reminded of my mother saying exactly the same thing to me, and I think of just how much we remain children of parents, even after becoming parents of children.
The book is a pleasing time capsule for anyone born in the early nineties: several times while reading I find myself saying ‘oh yeah’ out loud at the mention of a game, album, film, TV show. Chris’s stories of beer drinking and frat-boy behaviour start to annoy me, but then his dad, driven by his son to distraction, smashes up Chris’s computer, and I feel bad.
Further uncanny: Chris stays at home when he’s meant to be in class, and hides upstairs when his dad comes back on his lunch break. I used to stay in instead of going to school too, more than once hiding in a cupboard when my father came back from work at midday – stupidly I think, ‘this book is about me.’
Things come to a head for Chris. Friendships disappear, the full extent of his truancy has come to light, and he faces expulsion; His relationship with his parents seems damaged beyond repair. When I got thrown out of my first secondary school for near-constant truanting, my dad spent the entire day shouting at me, pausing as he stormed from room to room to add to the list of ways in which I was putting my mother and him through hell.
Chris notices everything. What could be exhausting lists of the sounds and smells that trigger his anxiety are instead poetic little lines, and beautiful: ‘[t]he smell of wet clay, paints, white spirit. A girl a few rows behind me uses a hairdryer to harden a layer of acrylic.’ This art room scene takes place during Chris’s own toughening up, as he starts to see a counsellor and tackle his debilitating condition. Something has made him realise that he can still do important stuff, even when he feels bad.
When you are chronically anxious – and have been, and will be – it’s hard to separate how you feel from what’s actually happening, almost impossible to see how immaterial your own feelings about a situation might be. ‘It’s all in your head’ I remind myself when I’m overcome by an imagined scenario, or how a person ‘must’ be feeling as a result of something I’ve done. I take heart as Chris starts to feel better.
Every day Chris returns to school is a silent triumph over his anxiety. He savours the flavour of a chip, the first hot food he’s been able to buy from the cafeteria all year, tasting victory as he sits with friends, who are none the wiser to his bravery. And he likes it that way, and that’s the point: The Fear Talking isn’t a story of redemption, not even of healing, it’s about doing what you have to do in order to live with how you are. Quietly getting on with life even when you feel like you can’t, because your circumstances aren’t always dictated by how you feel, and getting on with it can make you feel better in the long run anyway. It’s not about winning, it’s about not being defeated.
At times I don’t like Chris – though I suspect I don’t like many teenagers very much – but I still want him to succeed, I still want him to realise that so much of the battle is forcing yourself to do the things which anxiety says you can’t. And when he does, I celebrate with him. If you read this book, as I did, as a chronically anxious person, then you’ll enjoy Chris’s searing honesty all the more because you get it; if you read it as an un-anxious person, it’ll help you start to understand.
Joseph Coward is a writer and musician, most commonly found in London, England. He locomotes bipedally at a height of six feet and at a weight of one hundred and sixty pounds, subsisting on a diet of vegetables, grains, grease, booze, and sleeping pills. Like most mammals of his order, he is working on a debut novel while studying for a degree in English Literature. He has paired for life with his partner Alex, and they live together in East London, their natural habitat. @JosephCoward
James Thornton riffs a poem from today’s headlines
In Torrent of Falsehoods Trump Claims Election is Being Stolen
“Where are Republicans!” Eric Trump added about an hour and a half later. “Have some backbone. Fight against this fraud. Our voters will never forget you if your sheep!”
-–New York Times, 6 November 2020
If your sheep don’t lift a finger
If your sheep don’t baa for dad
If your sheep don’t buy Ivanka’s clothes
If your sheep don’t stay in dad’s hotels
If your sheep don’t attack Democrats
If your sheep don’t vote twice for dad
If your sheep don’t get out on the streets
If your sheep don’t hold Biden hostage
If your sheep don’t deliver the election
Our voters will never forget you if your sheep!
I am not a fan of additional explanations. A story itself should be an explanation; always open in some way and made complete only through interaction in the reader’s mind – differently each time, uniquely. Yet in this case, in the case of The Fifth Dimension, I feel the need to point out one of the fruits this story yielded me as a result of my searching, discovering, creating and writing it…
I never wanted to be a mathematician or a physicist. And I never became either although I studied those disciplines. I enrolled in those subjects at the age of eighteen under the pressure of several circumstances. First of all: in what was then Czechoslovakia at the time of Normalisation all subjects in the Humanities were completely answerable to the ruling Marxist-Leninist ideology. For admission, for example, to the Faculty of Arts, I didn’t have a good enough cadre appraisal – my family wasn’t very accommodating of the totalitarian regime, rather the opposite. But on top of that: there was no point in studying what was on offer back then. Natural sciences weren’t subject to such strong political pressures.
The other circumstance was that my father was and still is today a world-renowned mathematician. Although I have been writing since my childhood and my first literary attempts go back so far as to the time when I still could not write all the letters of the alphabet, my father never ceased to nurture his dream that I would become his successor. So in a sort of way he took advantage of the political circumstances to get me where he wanted me.
However there was one more circumstance – a purely practical one: a two-year mandatory military service. The former Czechoslovakian Army bordered on a bizarre combination of ideological oppression and utter idiocy. When one student asked a senior officer during a lecture whether it would be possible to also fire around corners with the aid of ballistic trajectory, he was told that, in principle, it was possible but not a technique that was in use. Anyone who laughed openly at such a statement, however, risked harsh penalties. University graduates didn’t have it as tough: they went into service for a year and straight into positions of command. And this was in fact the deciding reason why I had to graduate from a university. My choice became the Faculty of Nuclear Physics and Physical Engineering, whose course content largely matched that of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics.
As for military service, later I managed to obtain the coveted blue book (a complete exemption from military duty) due to a serious diagnosis from which I fortunately never suffered. But I did complete all of my studies and graduated from the faculty of physics; with excellent results at that. There actually wasn’t a mathematical or physical postulate, formula or proof I wouldn’t understand as long as I wanted to understand it. I guess I did have some of my father’s genes after all. However I wasn’t creative in the field of physics: I would never come up with something myself.
I was not born a mathematician or a physicist, I was born a writer. I wrote my first story with the help of a letter drawing stencil when I was a little less than six years old. I wrote at primary school and at high school and I completed my first book (which later came out in print) during my university studies of physics. I’m not a mathematician or a physicist retrained to be a writer, but a writer who made a five-year detour studying maths and physics.
For a long time I considered those five years as the most wasted years of my life. In fact until the moment ten years ago when I came across a Czech translation of Kip Thorne’s book Black Holes and Time Warps. Thanks to my earlier studies I could read it with understanding. What’s more: the reading began to inspire me to write the story of The Fifth Dimension.
I’m well aware of the fact that theoretical physics is moved forward by the greatest minds of today: true geniuses who get closer to the nature of being than philosophers do. Their apparatus, and actually a sort of sixth sense for examination of the world, is high mathematics and an aptitude for physics In contrast, my contact with mathematics was completely severed. After graduation I immediately fled from a field I didn’t consider my own. My mind was directed elsewhere: it resides in the world of literary stories and the brain connections for mathematical thinking have been completely silted up. But even now I have a memory inside me that a mathematical formula can convey deep knowledge and bring about an experience not dissimilar to that of reading a poem. Divorced from mathematics I can’t follow the course of the latest developments and have to rely on popular science books, such as the one that inspired me to write The Fifth Dimension. I’m also aware of the fact that it is difficult to formulate an idea about the nature of the universe that someone else hasn’t already formulated.
Yet there is one idea which the story of The Fifth Dimension brought to my mind and which I haven’t come across anywhere else. And it’s the idea about the very nature of our thinking. That our thinking itself shows signs of another dimension. That thinking is not derivable from mere matter, from mere spacetime, from mere neural connections and chemical reactions in our brain. That our thinking is not of material nature and shows signs of rebellion against four-dimensional spacetime. At the same time, it realises itself through the physical body we acquired through evolution and with which it is inextricably linked. That is why it shows those signs only in an incomplete and somewhat distorted manner. (The nineteenth-century Czech poet Jan Neruda writes in his famous poem: ‘Up to the heavens we’d fly, but here with the Earth we’re bound.’)
So which signs do I have in mind? For example our persistent efforts to move in time: back, when we remember or when we explore the past, but also forward when we think about the future or try to directly predict it, or when, in the case of physical laws, we try to calculate it. Our mind does this despite the fact that matter alone can never be anywhere else but at a given point in spacetime (in the case of quantum physics with some degree of probability, but never in a different time). Further, our persistent effort to move freely in space. Which is what a physicist in particular does when he formulates laws that should apply to the universe as a whole. A physicist speculates about connections that lie far beyond the horizons of a material object. He even speculates about other dimensions (according to the superstring theory there should be a total of ten), although to the matter of his brain they are completely out of bounds. He speculates about what it looks like in a black hole, although the matter of his brain cannot get any information from inside the black hole’s interior. The physicist’s thinking defies four-dimensional spacetime in every possible way. Our imagination also defies it: we often think about things which we cannot make happen in this universe of ours with its laws. How do such things enter our minds if they are the result of mere material processes? And finally we defy it in our human lives when we think about what a loved one is doing right now on the other side of the world or perhaps just in the next room. What might they be thinking about right now? And sometimes what happens is that we think of the same thing at the same time. Other times we raise our heads toward the sky and think about God. Matter thinking about God?
It is important to note that this differs from the anthropic principle which physicists usually consider. But it has certain consequences for the anthropic principle. Anthropic principle roughly says that it’s no wonder if the universe we observe has precisely the characteristics we observe. If other characteristics were present we most likely wouldn’t have come into existence, and therefore couldn’t observe any other universe. We see only one possible universe, the one we are able to observe. The anthropic principle is in a kind of way a truth ex post. It reminds me of a situation where we listen to a story of someone who survived the death camps during the Holocaust. If we regard their story only from within the story itself then everything that took place essentially led to survival. It had to be that individual who survived. This is the analogy with the anthropic principle. At the same time, however, in most cases those who survived are precisely the people who often know best that the fact they survived is not their story. That they are here as random representatives of six million stories. That there could simply have been someone else in their place. At the beginning of all that, their story was not aimed at survival no matter how favourable some of the circumstance for survival might have been. If we look at the Holocaust as a whole, which is something we can do in contrast with looking at the origin and existence of the universe, we are fully able to see that those who survived are here as representatives of six millions stories most of which could have resulted in survival in place of those who survived. The problem is that in the case of our universe we don’t have the opportunity to look at its origin and development from the outside and encompass it in its entirety. Then we remain trapped in the anthropic principle.
But if we accept that thinking isn’t just the result of material processes issuing from the cells of our body, which are fully trapped in known spacetime, and in so doing accept that our life isn’t just a consequence of an evolutionary chain of events, but also a kind of intersection of spirit (or something else) into our spacetime, the situation changes. Then the Holocaust survivor no longer stands in front of us as a consequence of processes governed by natural laws, but as a witness to the whole. If life enters our world from elsewhere, and the very nature of our thinking is the result of some kind of interaction of this intersection with our cells, then man is able to affirm the existence of the universe not because he is the end-product of an evolutionary chain of events, but simply because his life is an intersection or an opening of a different dimension to our universe. Then it is possible to make a much stronger claim that man gives the universe its existence precisely because he observes it. The thing is that this could even be the meaning of his life. And so it is no longer, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ but ‘I think, and therefore the universe that surrounds me is.’ This then elevates the role of the Holocaust survivor: he is not a mere consequence of a chain of events but their witness. The sense of his story lies in giving testimony. If not a single Jew survived the Holocaust and if Nazism (in theory) prevailed to the extent that would eradicate all references to the past of the Jewish people, then the Holocaust would not exist in the future present – it would cease to exist. It will exist only thanks to surviving testimonies. In a similar way to how our universe exists: thanks to the testimony of the living.
To me personally, as someone who constantly and anxiously questions the meaning of our existence, this view of our world and our life at the beginning of which stands the thought of an unmaterial nature satisfies me. It is sufficient. Although thinking often loses its duel with matter: it is powerless; it cannot free itself from its material predicament. But… such is life: it is spirit stuck up to its ears in spacetime.
I don’t think I’ll return to physics again in my writing. The Fifth Dimension seems a sufficient way of capitalising on five lost years of study. But for those of you who at this moment feel a pinch of disappointment, I have good news as well: At the time of writing this afterword, I’m slowly finishing a novel, The New Planet. It’s likely that it will have around seven hundred pages. It isn’t a traditional sci-fi as its title may suggest, but rather an epic story from a distant past, while taking place in a distant future. And here we go again: future, past… The rebellion of thoughts against the laws of spacetime.
In The Tatra Mountains 30.08.2014
Translated by Hana Sklenkova
Keeping the World Away by Margaret Forster
This novel is about the late-19th-century painter Gwen John. Alone in her attic room in Paris she hopes to impress her lover Rodin with a painting. Forster takes us on her inner journey towards independence.
Life? or Theatre? by Charlotte Salomon
This isn’t a novel but an imaginative autobiography illustrated by hundreds of the artist’s richly coloured gouaches. Salomon set out to write “something wildly eccentric” and succeeded brilliantly before she was murdered in Auschwitz at the age of 26.
Tamara de Lempicka was a Polish-Russian painter who became famous for her scandalously realistic nude paintings. This novel explores her life and particularly her relationship with a 17-year-old prostitute,Rafaela Fanoat,
The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland
Vreeland shows how this extraordinary woman carried on working as an artist throughout a dramatic life; married off after a scandalous rape trial, she brought up her daughter alone.An exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi’s powerful paintings is on show at the National Gallery.
The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein
The early 20th century Chinese painter Pan Yuliang was sold into prostitution as a child but managed to go to art school in Shanghai and, eventually, to Europe. When she returned to China, which was on the brink of revolution, her art was considered too modern.
I’ve had a severe anxiety disorder for my whole life. Growing up, I kept my illness secret, even from my parents. Partly through the shame of the things I thought, the things I was afraid of, my hidden behaviours, but also because it was the 00s and nobody seemed to talk about these things – I had no idea what was up with me. That secrecy, confusion, isolation, avoidance, is what The Fear Talking is all about.
I know there are others out there who feel as isolated as I did, so I wrote the book I always wish someone had handed me. This is not a book about getting better, or turning my experiences into something positive. Sometimes, a reader needs a sense of camaraderie above self-help. There are enough success stories out there about an author having a mental illness and then either getting better or turning their experiences into something positive. Not everyone does recover, and I want that position to be better represented.
The Fear Talking is written in the confused and terrified voice of the sixteen-year-old me who didn’t know what the hell was wrong with him. It’s a book about breaking through that wall, someone learning about anxiety from the very bottom, learning to communicate it. It’s about the damage it causes to others, but also the moments of real connection that come from finally understanding each other.
Anxiety, OCD and depression have had a profound impact on those surrounding me. I wanted to honour these struggles. The parents seeing their once high-achieving son now throwing his future away and hiding. The girlfriend whose hopes of seeing her first love are dashed again and again as he repeatedly cancels on their plans. The lies I spun to these people I loved. The Fear Talking is for these people, too: the parents, siblings, partners, carers, or anyone at all who wishes to better understand a condition that often makes no sense. It allows the reader to observe the bombardment of intrusive thought, the resistance against it, the logic of obsession, the actions it forces. A peek behind the curtains of a youth lived in fear.
Birds feature in the story of Pansy Boy, but they get their own star feature at the end of the book in your hand drawn Field Guide to Birds. Why was it important to include those pages?
When the book felt almost complete and was filled with the birds I loved as a child, I wanted to reveal the names of the birds to share the knowledge with the reader; whatever their age. I also love little facts and stories about birds, as I think this cements knowledge in hungry minds. I knew this would increase the pagination, but it felt like an essential component of the book and I’m really happy we were able to make that work.
‘He loved to draw and he loved to write, he marvelled at all things in flight.’ Do you remember instances from your childhood of that marvel of birds?
Apparently from being very young, I loved birds. My mother used to joke that ‘fly’ was my first word. I have strong memories of being driven to my maternal grandparents in Devon and seeing flocks of lapwings float over freshly ploughed fields. I have a very comforting early memory of seeing the growing number of parakeets zooming around my paternal grandmother’s house near Richmond in the seventies. I adored the exotic sight and sound of them, as they swooped and screeched through balmy summer evenings.
In the opening spread, we get a brilliantly colourful Scarlet Macaw with its wings spread wide over Pansy Boy, sitting with his sketch pad, who is drawn without colour. Later, Pansy Boy is still colourless, sitting in a garden radiant with flowers and a green parakeet. Why is this boy without colour?
The entire book originated in one dream. In that dream the characters were shades of grey and the natural world was full of colour. This was a way of emphasising the comfort and solace found in nature; as colour to me, suggests hope.
This was at odds with the way the characters reacted to Pansy Boy. They seemed unenlightened and perplexed by his early performance of gender. Their lack of understanding made them seem less natural and therefore not ‘whole’. These characters didn’t deserve to exist in the full richness of Techincolor. The bullies also oppressed the main protagonist’s ability to exist fully, which is why he too remains monochrome, though his green eyes suggest a future where he will exist in ‘full colour’.
I also wanted to make a visual connection with cinema that uses black and white and colour cinematography as a narrative device, most famously in the The Wizard of Oz – though I use it in a completely different way.
Beyond that, I wanted to highlight the isolation of the character by removing the comfort of an understanding parent or teacher. There are gentle nods to the mother as the moon when Pansy Boy sleeps and when the school as a structure punishes the bullies. In showing no adults I’m purposefully referencing E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, where Steven Spielberg only shows the face of the mother for the majority of the film; no other adult face is shown until the end. Pansy Boy does not have an adult in it, highlighting his isolation and lack of support and emphasises his ability to solve his own problems by using pansies to challenge the system.
How much is it fair to see Pansy Boy as you?
It would be very fair. It’s completely me. The only fictional element is my early use of pansies. This did not develop until I became an artist.
In your new work, you’re pairing your full-colour drawings of birds with photos of yourself modelling each bird’s colour and posture. That seems a real evolution from the wilfully grey drawings of the boy in Pansy Boy. Could you say something about that?
Birds Can Fly is a new body of work. As it developed it became clear to me, that seeing the work through the lens of Pansy Boy does make it feel like a sequel of sorts, especially as Birds Can Fly is evolving into a book. This new work is a celebration of my own queer identity. My love of birds is obvious and my ‘gentle referencing’ of the drawings I’ve done is a very queer device. I’m using my styling and make-up skills to pay homage to the birds I love. There’s also a fair amount of silliness and humour in the act, which is very ‘me’ and is reflected in the absurdity of The Pansy Project and the homophobia I mark.
Your bird drawings are proving very popular. Are you finding comfort in the human company of bird lovers?
The drawings have been popular. The ‘gentle referencing’ is what increased the amount of attention I was getting on-line. There’s definitely something special about the combination of drawing and ‘fashion’ spread that captures the imagination. Over-all there is something light about Birds Can Fly, that seems entirely appropriate for these strange times. There’s a need for some distraction from the darkness.
It’s been really interesting to be embraced by so many bird lovers. It’s awakened something in me too I’m becoming increasingly interested in the plight of birds and the danger our natural world is in. Perhaps as I begin to explore more about birds and the natural world in the work I make, I am ‘paying it back’ for the solace I’ve found in birds my entire life. I think ornithologists see this and appreciate the sentiment.
In what ways do birds mirror queerness for you? Is it about being their uninhibited selves?
The quick answer is ‘yes’ – birds are free of the cultural limitations of humanity. Nature does not judge race, gender or sexuality; this is partly why so many more people are finding comfort in the natural world. Since the release of Pansy Boy and the development of Birds Can Fly, I’ve been researching the taxonomy of birds and the links between colonialism and the natural world. I’m interested in the ideas of masculinity and ornithology, from the ‘flamboyance of flamingos’ to JJ Audubon’s ‘performance’ of the intrepid explorer. So many cultural assumptions are entwined within ornithology, colonialism, queerness and gender, both historically and in a contemporary context. It’s all fascinating to me. My current research is beginning to unpick some of these ideas. I’m looking forward to writing about it and answering the above in more detail.
You started your new bird project in lockdown. With the quietening of our streets and skies man seems to have found birds and birdsong afresh. What’s your sense of birds from your London flat?
Like so many I was very aware of the dawn chorus just as lockdown happened. The discussion of this in the media and online is what led me to ask my followers if they’d like me to draw them a bird. Even in the bustle of Bethnal Green the birds were (and are) quite present. I’m lucky enough to live on the 6th and 7th floor where I can gaze over the skyline and spy on the birds. I see the pretty standard pigeon, herring gull and magpie, but also the goldfinch, pied wagtail, kestrel, parakeet and the occasional flock of Canada geese flying by in formation. Binoculars help me identify them from afar.
If you had to pick a bird as your soul-mate, which would you choose?
This is almost impossible to answer, though I did just return from Wales, where I went to The British Bird of Prey Centre where I saw the amazing Gyrfalcon. It was ethereal and beautiful, I could look at that all day.
It looks like we’re headed for a winter of more lockdown. What guidance can you offer from your own artistic practice to help others get through?
I’ve been incredibly lucky in lockdown. I’ve been able to live alone, which for me is a blessing. I was able to isolate and work. Drawing gave me a focus in the absence of my usual work with The Pansy Project; routine and purpose is what I need as an artist. I’ve completed 50 bird drawings and ‘gentle references’. 50 felt like a nice round number to at least pause at. I’m beginning to bring the work together into a publication. The research and reading is also helping me retain that focus. As the pressure of more lockdown mounts, I am feeling the pull of doing more drawings, which I might. It’s been amazing that my own form of comfort has been enjoyed by others. This has been reflected in the many messages I’ve received. This attention on the need of others has also helped.
I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice. In the turmoil of the global pandemic, creativity calmed my mind and helped me better my drawing. For me it’s like exercise has been for some, a regular daily task that I can see daily improvement in. I’ve also learned to listen less to the news and more to music. We have all learned that the arts in general is more than a taste or preference; it is an essential part of our mental well-being. The natural world around us and our artistic response to it, in whatever form, is fundamental to our survival as a species. The sooner our governments realise this, the better.
Would you call Virgin & Child a thriller?
I used a lot of techniques deployed by thriller writers to try to grip the reader, and create a sense of mystery and tension. But it’s a novel that works at many levels, so it’s not a straightforward commercial thriller by any means.
What was the burning issue you wanted to address in Virgin & Child?
I wanted to look at issues around sexuality and gender in the Catholic Church, and at the clash between modern scientific knowledge and ancient beliefs, which still provide spiritual nourishment for millions of people.
What was your entry point that helped get you into the mind of your Pope Patrick?
It was writing about his childhood that was the key for me. I realised he was an outsider, and a misfit, and since I’d often felt an outsider when I was a child, that enabled me to connect with him and make him more human. In writing his memories, I discovered why he was as he was.
How much did your ending surprise you when you came to write it?
I like to write without knowing the ending. One of the reasons for writing a novel is for me to find out what happens! So yes, it was a surprise, but as always, once you write the ending it seems it was that it was inevitable from the start.
What was the biggest hurdle you faced in writing the book?
I started out with a lack of self-confidence after failing to complete or publish a novel for a long time, and also knowing, from my experience in publishing, that this wasn’t going to be a book that appealed to mainstream publishers. That made me think for a long time, why go to all that effort, why write it all? Deciding to write the novel as part of a PhD gave me the motivation to get started and keep going, knowing that I would at least get a doctorate out of it!
Were you hoping for a bestseller, or do you genuinely not care?
Of course I would love the book to reach a wide audience, I think every writer would like that. But I certainly have enough experience of writing and publishing not to hope that it would make a lot of money! But it was a book I had to write for myself, regardless of whether or not it found a readership.
Is there a writer you feel yourself heir to?
It’s impossible for me to compare myself with the greats. But because of the combination of religious themes and thriller tropes, I suppose I would have to say Graham Greene and Brian Moore, both of whom I have read and admire for their readability and the clarity of their prose, along with the handling of moral dilemmas and important, often religious, themes.
Do your own books make you cry?
No. They may make me feel very strange at times, but I don’t think they have made me shed a tear.
Did your research change the course of the fiction at all?
Yes, there was a significant element that changed because the science told me my original conception was not possible. For me, what happened had to have a scientific explanation, and so I had to think again. That opened up a new thread in the narrative and helped me to develop another key character.
Having written your novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing, what advice would you give a writer starting out on such a thing?
You need to be prepared to read a lot, and to be more conscious of your writing process than you might usually be. For me what was tough was having to show my work to my supervisor at an earlier stage than I would normally have done, and receive criticism on it. So you have to be prepared for that. At times that was hard to take, although I have to say, looking back on it, all the criticism was correct and made the book much stronger. So, listen to the criticism – but don’t be afraid to argue for anything you feel strongly about, you will ultimately need to be able to defend your thesis, so practise this early!
I learned my lessons about working from home in a small Pyrenean village before the age of budget airlines.
It’s where we found our remote mountain home. A night train from Paris let you wake by the Mediterranean. Flamingos were waking up in the salt pools. From the city of Perpignan a bus took you to a falling-apart town. A school minibus then brought you into the mountains. The village had a daily bread van, and a butcher’s van twice a week, and a goat cheese lady that came by once in a while. That was it for commerce. We were poor, with no car, and happy to be remote.
The house was once a goathouse. Water poured in through its internal walls, for it is built onto the hillside. At dusk, bats stream from the outer walls. It’s tucked into the edge of the village, on a hill with a view down the valley. From the kitchen window we can count the trout in the river below.
In part, coming here is a retreat into Nature. For my day job I represent the Earth as its lawyer, and I see my journey into these hills as a way to visit my client. It’s also where I come to write. The village is called Pézilla de Conflent. Pézilla translates as ‘little place of peace’. When here, I slow down into a pace of life that is measured in seasons. Drip by drip my latest project took shape as Notes from a Mountain Village. Gathered from twenty-five years as a communard in this mountain village, it is a poetry collection that is wedded to these hills.
This valley is where I learned my most important lockdown lessons. Our house is shaped like a boat, thirty-five feet long with a bedroom above and the living space below, connected by a winding staircase. I share it with my husband Martin Goodman. He is inevitably locked into an intense writing project of his own. To get along in the confines of this space, we came up with lockdown rules. They still work for us, so I figured I would share them.
Step one was deciding who would handle all the domestic stuff for the day. One person would be the guest and the other the host, we decided. The guest has the best seat at the table, with the view down the valley. All meals are provided, all washing up done. Plates could stack up if that day’s host wanted: the one rule was that a clean kitchen is handed over at 5.30 pm. So for a whole 24 hour period while you are a guest, you are free of care and treated royally.
5.30 is party-time. That’s where the other set of rules comes in. At 5.30 we are each free to share a drink and chat. Until that point, we have an utter right to silence. If both wish to talk during the day then that’s fine. But if one is nursing a project, steeping an idea, then the other doesn’t interrupt. If you need to ask a question it can wait. Lunch can be eaten without a word spoken. The daily walk in the hills can be separate or shared.
In a house with no walls, this daily round made a wall out of time. It gave each of us privacy, and brought order to the day. At 5pm, at the sound of plates being washed, and party time only a half hour away, excitement grew.
The world’s bigger now. In this pandemic the office is now home and I share it with Martin. It has a few more doors but not many, and only one living space. He wanders off in the creative space of a new novel, while I peer into different corners of the world through zoom. At 5.30 we’re back together again, set to share news of our day.
James Thornton is the CEO of ClientEarth, and author of Notes from a Mountain Village – twenty-five years of further observations from life in France.