The writer as curator, or why I left last month

Originality in fiction writing is often measured through the strength of metaphors, ideas, adjectives and form: ways of conveying something that is more than could be told in plain everyday language (though of course, everyday language is often used to great effect in great fiction; just see any or all of Ali Smith’s work). Originality in non-fiction is harder to measure. Of course, originality of ideas comes into it, as does writing style: reasons why many of my favourite writers consider non-fiction to fall within the remit of that awful phrase ‘creative writing’. But recently I’ve come to understand that a big part of non-fiction’s strength and originality comes from the careful curating of a selection of relevant and arresting exempla. And it’s this, as a budding non-fiction writer, that has finally driven me away from Tumblr, a website where I’ve lurked since 2009.

Some background is necessary to fully understand why Tumblr is so uniquely unsuited to the non-fiction writer, I think. Operating as a kind of online diary/scrapbook, the website allows the easy posting of any quotations, photographs, and links that the poster finds memorable to a central timeline. I used my Tumblr as an online scrapbook for ideas, often tagged under similar themes, and then would write pieces assembled from these ideas and my responses to them – the essay as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster. Much effort went into this curating, and I mostly posted for myself, though I admit falling into the trap more and more of late of trying to curate the perfect self: perfect scholar, perfect twenty-something, perfect aesthete. Mostly, however, I was posting only for the ease of storage, and for the occasional personal post to communicate with a network of online friends/followers (I’m growing less and less confident now in these distinctions).

It was a confluence of two circumstances that drew me to this bittersweet awakening. Two months ago, the sheer wealth of wide-ranging references in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide To Getting Lost and Wanderlust forced a recognition of just how crucial this ability to dip one’s hand into the cauldron of the past and collage the results is for the non-fiction writer. Secondly, not long later, the appearance of a work featuring a number of references I recognised intimately from my own timeline and personal posts shot me through like a lead arrow. I cried for a long week. And it was doubly painful because, mostly, I blamed myself. As a non-fiction writer and as a budding academic, your reading and your unique thoughts are your currency. I really mean this. Employability is based on publishing, and publishing is contingent upon originality, and originality is not compatible with a life shared online. Though I believe entirely in the dissemination of knowledge, I want to succeed as a writer, and that requires a certain level of silence in advance of publication, especially when the lines dividing inspiration and plagiarism are so shady as in the case of references (creative plagiarism is far less uncertain, though it is also very painful). This is why writers don’t publish half-finished drafts, and can rarely be coaxed to say more than a sentence describing an unfinished work. It’s why many academics are very cagey about sharing precisely the focus of their work prior to publishing, though sharing some work is now of funding benefit. It’s why the lot at Bloomsbury were sworn to secrecy in advance of the final Harry Potter book. The work needs to stand alone. I understand this now. The collecting and curating processes must remain a secret.

I’m not going to pretend I’m some sort of saint of the Internet. I’ve definitely come across ideas others have collected, and I’ve been shaped by them. I’m convinced now, though, that the collection and curating of references is such a crucial part of a non-fiction work’s originality that we have to be careful about sharing the pre-essay process; or at least, we have to learn to acknowledge our sources better. When a friend skims an article I’ve written, pre-publication, and leaves me unacknowledged while lifting references for her own acknowledged work – what’s to be done? What’s fair? Where is the ethical line? Similarly, when I find myself unconsciously looking to draw second-hand references from Solnit’s work for my own, I’m making sure to stop myself now, and at least to remember to acknowledge that these dots were not drawn first by myself. It’s tough. I’m in love with the wide dissemination of ideas Tumblr has made possible – but I’m also a little scared of participating in it myself, from the position of an as-yet un-established writer.

So, for the time being, I’m officially defunct. Ish.


notebook philosophising #2: on pain and failing to communicate it

A response to the anonymous internet being who thought a piece of my personal writing well-crafted, but fundamentally and failingly incoherent.

I’m glad you liked the way my piece was written, I suppose, but if you’re asking why it didn’t make sense I think it mustn’t have made the point I wanted it to. Pain is in some very meaningful ways non-communicable, really, and these horrible moments that litter our lives can’t always be wrestled inside the suitcase of conventional narrative communication that facilitates easy understanding. The past that continues to haunt haunts because it has some kind of ghostly presence in the present, and so stories that transmit the most emotional meaning about personal painful matters do so in the least accessible ways, or should, because they refuse to obey the traditional linear temporal orientation of narrative, because it just doesn’t fit the reality of sitting up in bed at 10pm crying at something from a 1998 memory that should theoretically be buried under the psychological strata of the last decade and a half.

You Promised Me A Feeling: ‘From Scotland With Love’; Film; and the Role of the Soundtrack in Resurrecting Past Ghosts

A number of the theoretical difficulties with short clips of archival film footage are the same as those with photographs. Like photographs, as Sontag explains, a short clip of film footage works by ‘slicing out [a] moment and freezing it’, in a way that can preclude true understanding of the past by removing it from any context or explanation. Like photographs, archived footage raises issues of consent and appropriation. As Sontag also writes: ‘To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.’ It is hard, watching From Scotland With Love, not to see clips of young Scots dancing; shipbuilders in the Clyde; families in tears boarding ships to emigrate abroad, without feeling some unease about the one-sidedness of our twenty-first century gaze and all of its bittersweet hindsight. Finally, like photographs, film – especially old film – tends to aestheticise and ‘transform’ subjects and events into something more ‘beautiful’ or ‘unbearable’ than the ‘real life’ it purports to represent. Documentary as it may call itself, as a purely visual phenomenon without titles, interviews, or voiceovers, From Scotland With Love’s ability to convey the realities of lived experience in twentieth-century Scotland is perhaps limited – though it is unmistakably beautiful, powerful, and heartwarming. This is, perhaps, why Kenny Anderson’s, a.k.a. King Creosote’s, soundtrack plays such an interesting and crucial role in the project.

‘Narratives make us understand’, Sontag writes, while photographs (and here, film clips) merely ‘haunt’ us. Certainly the archive footage in From Scotland With Love doesn’t suffer as strongly from these difficulties of conveying understanding as single photographs – the sheer number of clips placed in such close proximity to one another prompts constant consideration of curatorship, aestheticism, and what lies beyond the shown frame and time period. But there is no doubt that the narrative accompaniment provided by Anderson’s lyrics and melodies adds great weight to Virginia Heath’s visuals; providing far greater insight into the lives and circumstances depicted and into the achievements and limitations of the documentary form than would be available otherwise. It’s a great example of what music, at its best, can offer to other art forms, and achieve in collaboration with them.

From Scotland With Love opens initially without titles; without introductions; with only the black-and-white sight of buses and a solitary car riding down an eerily empty Glaswegian street, the frame shuddering and jittering with age. The frames cut about, seemingly without logical connection: a man surrounded by pigeons; a flock of birds suddenly shooting overhead like an augury; the sort of impossible birds-eye view over the past cityscape that you’d only get in your unconscious. The introduction is as beautiful and mysterious as the past, and as foreign as a fiction. Over all of this runs the gorgeous ‘Something To Believe In’, a sympathetic accordion melting into Anderson’s vocals as he sings: ‘Dreaming without sleeping / It’s morning, are you leaving?’ It’s a brilliant introduction to the medium of the documentary, outlining the unreal feel of this glimpse into history, but also – and importantly – serving to counteract the harmful notion Sontag warns of, that in filming and viewing the past, we ‘violate’ people by turning them into ‘objects’ that can be ‘possessed’. Instead, Anderson’s questioning vocals, ‘are you leaving?’ followed by the devastating, ‘But our story / It is only begun / And are you willing it to end?’ is a powerful offering to Heath’s archival ghosts, gifting them with a speaking voice that puts questions directly to the viewer/listener, demanding them to consider their relationship and obligation to those shown in the footage and refusing to allow them to be reduced to mere ‘objects’. The questions and accusations – ‘you promised’ – directly convey the unequal power relations involved in this viewing of history, while the final sung demand, ‘now promise to be real’, forces us to face up to the fact that it is we who are charged with the responsibility of ensuring we do not cheat these lives of the fair engagement they are owed. Anderson’s introductory song sets the scene brilliantly for a documentary that will force us to consider what it means to observe the past, even as we enjoy doing so. And just as the word ‘our’ in the lines ‘our story / It is only begun’ hint, there is something powerful and communal to come out of this collaboration of viewer and viewed, and filmmaker and songwriter, if we only try. It’s powerful magic indeed.


In the industrial interlude that follows, the problem of film’s habit of positive aesthetic transformation is made apparent. Images of molten metal firework across the screen amidst shots of the shipbuilders and welders of Scotland’s past, the black-and-white footage giving way to bright reds that light up the screen like the sparks of some sort of enlightenment. Speaking of art that aims to depict the industrial workers of this era, tapestry weaver Jimmy Watt writes: ‘people need to know how wonderful was the work of their fathers and grandfathers, but also how dirty and dangerous it was’. In this instance, the film and the film’s soundtrack of pretty warbling clarinets and eerie strings (placed, admittedly, in juxtaposition with the occasional hiss of steam or crash of hot coals) does not do justice to the representation of a lifestyle that, for thousands, was poorly paid, highly dangerous (shipbuilders were at high risk of asbestos poisoning), and remarkably un-aesthetic.

It is lucky, then, that the next song is so profoundly concerned with temporality and the contrast between beauty and the ugliness of life. Within the lyrics of ‘Bluebell, Cockleshell, 123’, which runs over footage that juxtaposes images of childhood with that of working-class working life, we are reminded of the difficulty of remaining consciously aware that, while these archived existences we see were as intensely beautiful as they appear to us now, they were also dark and painful. This is not immediately discernable from the visuals, but is extremely necessary for a generous and illuminating understanding of Scotland’s past. While the song is jaunty – a children’s rhyme playing over a skipping montage – the later lyrics, dressed up in the same tune and rhythm, are very dark: ‘Bury me in the old churchyard’, Anderson sings, ‘Beside my only brother’, followed by the declaration, ‘My coffin shall be black / Six white angels at my back / Two to sing, two to pray / Two to carry my soul away.’ The mortality sung of here is reminiscent of Roland Barthes’ pronouncement that photography is always ‘a vertigo of time defeated’; the reminder that ‘that is dead and that is going to die’. When watching these archive children and adults, we remember that are not truly frozen in a continuous present, for our possessive and unproblematic enjoyment, but were living beings who also suffered death and disease and overwork. The contrast between the songs of childhood play and the theme of childhood death also makes impossible again a simple acceptance of film’s aestheticising powers. The child’s awareness of their own death, like that of their brother, to the extent of designing their own funeral, is reminiscent of the high child mortality rates that haunted Scotland, especially through the 1920s and 1930s (on average 17-18% higher in Scotland than in England and Wales at that time). And the contrast in the tone of the song with its subject matter illustrates the impossibility of assuming that a cheerful appearance belies a sometimes-devastating reality. Anderson’s soundtrack once more calls us to approach the film’s footage with a more attuned mind: aware of the possibilities of film to manipulate with its beautiful nostalgia, and able to resist its siren call.

This warning against film’s power of aesthetic ‘transformation’ is further sounded by Anderson’s ‘678’, a song which details limitations. ‘No I never was going to be first out of the stalls /No I never was going to be six, seven, eight feet tall’ begin the vocals, culminating in the quietly devastating and often-repeated ‘But at the back of my mind /I was always hoping I might just get by’. The song, playing over footage of working-class life, refuses again to allow the watcher/listener to read only happiness into the smiling faces shown (though, of course, we are not supposed to read only hardship into them either). What is also interesting about ‘678’ however is its provenance: those who have followed the releases of King Creosote will recognise it from a number of earlier albums. While this does not change its impact in the narrative of From Scotland With Love, it might add another level of thought about how we relate to its images. Much of our understanding of photographs (and, I continue to argue, film clips), as Barthes and Sontag state, is borne out of the written word that surrounds them: they ‘wait to be explained or falsified by their captions’ (Sontag). It also, however, arises out of our subjectivity: Barthes calls this the ‘punctum’, the ‘wounding’ detail that acts as a conduit of our personal feelings towards the image. Anderson’s song, written out of the context of this footage and this film, was chosen by him to accompany the images presumably because he felt in what he watched a sense of relation between the experience of the other and his own. And this has resonance for the audience as a whole, who must recognise that their feelings towards the people, places, and eras shown are directed in part by their own personal backgrounds, and imbued with the feelings of their present self. To watch and relate to an image is not a stand-alone objective act; a fact which the re-emergence of this song illustrates, as does that of later tracks ‘My Favourite Girl’ and ‘Carry On Dancing’.

In addition to stressing the fact that to observe is not necessarily an objective act, Anderson’s soundtrack also serves to counsel the watcher/listener to remain at a distance in order to facilitate a better level of understanding. ‘Cargill’, a later song running over footage of Scotland’s fishing folk, seems almost to have been intended to respond to Sontag’s concern that ‘‘To photograph people is to violate them’; to ‘possess’ them. The refrain, ‘Cargill do not presume to understand / The dread of counting home the fleet’, which builds to a crescendo at the end of the second line in a manner that emphasises its message, is an homage to the individual experience of pain and a demand that others – clearly heard by we the audience – do not appropriate it or undermine its singularity. The relationship between place and inhabitants, ‘Cargill you’ll have me round the bend / Cargill you’re pulling all the strands’ again stresses the singularity of experience, and a relationship from which we, the observers/listeners, are excluded. We are warned not to appropriate, or to intrude: only to listen and watch, and be mindful of our otherness. From this position, we might learn from the past; not merely detract from it.

Crucially for the project, however, Anderson’s soundtrack does not only emphasise our distance from past lives, but encourages us to think about how we might work collaboratively with them to the most powerful and satisfying of ends. ‘Pauper’s Dough’, another song from the King Creosote back catalogue, is worked into a slightly new form that does its best to highlight the more difficult aspects of Scotland’s history. Powerfully detailing the ‘Injustice’ of mining, the ‘detriment’ of ‘clarty surrounds’ and the relative poverty of mining jobs in a tender soft vocal, it also describes a refusal to disappear, in the line, ‘we’re striving to be counted’. This point is all the more powerful for its visual backdrop, where the miners and protestors literally refuse to be hidden from view. The addition of this new introduction to the established line, ‘You’ve got to rise above the gutter you are inside’, is crucially interesting, however, because it proves to the watcher/listener that our attempt to engage with the past from the present can build something new and beautiful. Each reference to ‘our’, passing between a song we know to be Anderson’s and the point-of-view of the miners, suggests a collaborative bridging between them and us; past and present; strange and known, to great creative result: the song is undeniably beautiful. Our relationship with the mysterious past is not futile, Anderson’s songs enact, but one that can create something anew; something which reinvigorates our experience. The same could be said of Heath’s masterful documentary.

To attempt to discuss every song on From Scotland With Love’s soundtrack would risk overlabouring what is in fact a simple point: that King Creosote’s soundtrack performs a vital role in this documentary, not only in enhancing its appeal (I’ve barely touched on how beautiful Anderson’s vocals, melodies, and lyrics are), but in teaching us to think critically about our relationship to the past and the documentary medium. Lives are never as beautiful to us as when they are viewed from afar, rescued from time, removed from context, and imbued with the pathos of nostalgia. Yet to view the characters in this documentary in such a way would be to remove the dimensions from past lives: to reduce them from what they were in all their messiness and beauty, and render them mere fantasies; nothing more than objects our minds might play with. By giving us some context and some measure of awareness of our distance from these lives, Creosote’s songs force us to think about our debts to these archival phantoms, and to a past that we might too simply wish to beautify or make simpler, or structure to our own agenda. The shipbuilders, children, workers, and emigrants shown in this film are rescued from history not purely in the displaying of the archive film footage, but in imbuing them with agency to fight against an audience that might otherwise speak over them. And, indeed, in her own words Heath agrees, explaining in an interview with The Skinny: ‘I just thought that he [Anderson] would add an incredible amount – because we didn’t want to use interviews or voiceover, so it really was a question of me shaping the visual material and working with a composer who could help to bring out the stories.’

The expression ‘bring out’ is crucial. In this masterful work, Anderson has not allowed these ghostly specters of the past to be objectified, but has channeled to us their voices and their dignity. Both past and present owe him a great debt.

update // review of ‘The Panopticon’ by Jenni Fagan

A season of quitting: employ and country. An interesting word, ‘quit’ – from the Latin originally: ‘quies’ – meaning ‘sleep, rest, repose, absence of activity, absence of noise, freedom from disturbance, freedom from anxiety, placidness, serenity, tranquility, peaceful conditions’, which might explain the rest and repose taken from this little site while I’ve attempted to finish my zine and restructure my days. to plug the gap, here’s a little review I wrote a while ago of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon. I had the pleasure of seeing Jenni talk at the Southbank Centre a few days ago & I highly recommend her work if you haven’t already checked it out.

Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon: A Review

Up on the top floor, the windows are barred and boarded up. I bet there’s petitions to close this place down already; they’ll be people from the village writing letters tae their MPs. Mr Masters is right. He told us all about it in history – communities dinnae like no-ones.

Jenni Fagan’s debut novel is one that forces the reader to confront head-on his/her notions of ‘communities’ and ‘no ones’. From its preface, the novel’s protagonist, Anais Hendricks – care home resident, serial offender and serious Francophile – makes clear that her world is one of ‘they’ versus ‘me’: one in which she and her care home friends are perpetually unwanted by society; in which her loved ones disappear while middle-class commuters willfully ignore their missing person posters; in which the media respond to the abuse of a working-class child merely by declaring that ‘NOBODY COULD PREVENT’ it; and in which most of Anais’ contemporaries, as she points out, are either ‘in training for the proper jail […] or the game’. Behind all this looms too the literal and metaphorical spectacle of the Panopticon: the architecturally prison-esque care home in the middle of the Midlothian countryside that leaves its disenfranchised residents feeling like inmates even in the supposed freedom of contemporary Scotland.

Fagan’s novel feels like a rebuttal to this society that too often chooses to ignore voices like that of Anais. Her first-person female east-coast Scots narrative (which itself feels like a rebuttal to the male-dominated Edinburgh narratives of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting) shifts registers and tones masterfully, introducing Anais not only as the bloodstained, handcuffed, no-good youth in the back of a police car that may or may not have just put a policewoman into a coma, but also as an individual capable of intense vulnerability, intelligence, and appreciation of the natural world that the authority-figures who would write her off fail to recognise. The casual way in which Anais and her fellow residents openly discuss their experiences of rape, self-harm, drug use, and violence shatters societal notions of the ‘unspeakable’ nature of these unsavory or traumatic experiences, and shocks with its suggested normality. This novel is a plunge into the uncomfortable reality of sexism, classism, violence, and institutional abuse. Yet for all she has experienced, Anais is undeniably and defiantly a teenager, and this is as much a bildungsroman as a piece of social realism. Variously enthusing about ‘pill-box hats’, philosophising on social media and human nature, proclaiming the delights of French novelists as if the first to discover them, and taking time to proclaim the delights of ‘a butty in bed’, Anais is not here to be judged guilty or not guilty, or to be the face of the Scottish underclass, but to provide a look at what it’s like to mature – albeit in a very different setting than we usually see, and one we need to think more closely about.

Fagan’s debut really is stunning, with a strength of voice I’ve rarely seen – no wonder Ken Loach has already signed up to produce the film adaptation, and Granta selected Fagan as one of its decennial Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. The ending of the book is perhaps its only weakness, with Anais’ rather implausible flight to Paris and suggestions of happy-ever-after. But then, crucially, this is only ever a suggestion, and the reader must judge for his/herself whether to trust the word of a self-confessed semi-delusional teenage fantasist and the existence of happy-ever-after in a world this harsh. Fagan’s novel is not a novel of answers, but a novel of experience. And, as powerful, disturbing, and always engaging as it is, it’s well worth experiencing.

on metaphor // sleepy notebook philosophising

forever abhorring metaphor’s avaricious nature, how every flower’s a metaphor for youth and no youth a metaphor for flowers and all the world’s a stage until everyone falls down around you laughing when you tell them the stage is a world (or the world) (then fall gently back into their offices and officiate your language until it eats and excretes everything concrete in sight that you’re desperately trying to birth again, always, and always too late).

but maybe this explains it, then; the puzzle, the ordinance:

how the nation is always a body and the body is always a she but the female body never, never, of any national importance.

mirror writing (or: notes on mirrors and fairytales)

Fitting for a duplicitous subject, the French have two words for the mirror: glace and miroir. The latter is more common, referring as it does to the sort of mirror you might find in your handbag or your bathroom or your car; a word for the everyday modern mirror whose surface you skim shallowly, without thought. Glace, though, with its antiquated looking-glass tint, tells you more. I first heard it in Versailles, entering the famous Galerie des Glaces in December, a chill under my skin. There’s something about that other word; that sense of the ice that lurks behind it. Glace – from the Old French glace, from the even older Latin glacies – meaning: 1. Ice 2. Ice cream 3. Glass 4. Mirror. Hearing it used for the first time reminded me of that Anderson tale The Snow Queen, where the mirror gets all caught up in the glittering air and spells the boy’s heart glacial. The power of the mirror’s reflective gaze wielded against him as the shard stole in through his eye and shrank his mind to the limits of itself. I’ve always seen that tale as a parallel for the desperate narcissism of the mirror, for the power that we give it to reassure us (see also Snow White and the tragic queen so desperate for reassurance she spends all day alone inside; the mirror so powerful it speaks as she’s reduced to childlike rhyme).[1] I suppose what I’m saying is that I always thought that tale was trying to tell us our best reflections of the self come from those loved ones around us, not what shadow’s cast in a surface. Like how the boy is rescued in the end as the image of himself found in Gerda induces him to melt the mirror out with joyful, blinding tears. You’ll never see yourself moving with love or laughter or deepest rage like others will; a mirror only freezes. La glace, indeed. So, a note to self and to all the others: keep your eyes off your eyes. Trust those around you, listen to the bass beat of your organs, and don’t let the mirror’s ice into your soul. Keep dancing. Everything looks better that way.

[1] See how deep the miroir/glace mirroring runs? Snow Queen, Snow White. It is always glacial in the domain of la glace.

‘Carrie & Lowell’ in the wake of Anne Carson’s ‘Nox’: meditations on elegy [Published at The Rumpus]

c&l Grief doesn’t only disturb life; it disturbs the way we talk about life. As myriad aspects of our existence are questioned and reexamined in the wake of a death, so too is our relationship with the language we rely on for our grief’s expression. “In the sentence ‘She’s no longer suffering,’” Roland Barthes notes after the death of his mother, “to what, to whom does ‘she’ refer? What does that present tense mean?’” So too Anne Carson, discussing her work Nox in an interview with Brick journal, states that elegy – the process of paying literary homage to a lost one – is always a visible failure, a process of “non-arriving” while linguistically “giving the shape of a person” in a visibly constructed manner. Our relationship with language as truth is made uneasy after a death. We are always “telling a story” (Carson) when we elegise. Our loved ones are always linguistic constructions. And they are always more than the sum of our words.

[Read the rest over at The Rumpus]

It is similar to an admission in Stevens’ second track: “My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, illumination” – the idea of creating something beautiful in the middle of a black shroud. Whatever their anxieties, Carrie & Lowell and Nox have surely made it good indeed.