Monday, 16 April 2012

Thinking about London in India and back again (part 1 of 3)

I have been staring at a blank page for days.

Two months ago, we rattle into Satna, in North Eastern India, just as dawn was breaking. The station was almost deserted in this relatively small and obscure town, a place where anyone arriving and no involved in the production of cement is likely to be on their way to somewhere else, either one of the neighbouring tiger reserves or further still to Kharajuro’s collection of early medieval temples adorned with statues showing elaborate sexual aerobics. We transfer from train to taxi with some rudimentary bartering and an insistence that we do know where we want to go. Outside it is surprisingly cold. I am wearing a fleece and still the iced air pricks at my torso. There is a light frost on the car’s windscreen which needs to be cleared before we can set off with a gentle rock across the poorly paved roads, lolloping with the potholes and uneven camber. The sunlight is turning vibrant orange as it splinters across the horizon bathing the distant trees and mountains in its light. Along the roadside, amongst the litter, mooching dogs and cow dung, men squat down and cluster around fires of burning plastic. Polythene mixed with wood kindling is particularly popular for the speed with which it ignites and the intensity of its burn. They wear cotton trousers holing along the stitching and shirts with burn marks at the cuffs. I feel guilty to be so wrapped up and in a car no less. The driver wears a woollen hat, scarf and jacket the whole way. The heaters don’t appear to work so he wipes condensation from the inside of the windscreen where it clusters around the crack that runs from top to bottom. Between Mumbai pop songs played through the tinny speaker of his mobile phone, he makes idle conversation based around the tourism leaflets which he pulls from under his seat. My girlfriend rests her head on my shoulder and sleeps. I look out of the window and watch the sun continues to rise over the landscape of huts raised on canes above the fields, uniformed school children with the universal trudge but along a road in the middle of nowhere and everywhere people, in the gutter, waiting for passing work.

Outside is a mesmerising landscape but inside my head I am thinking about London.

I am thinking about writing. Specifically I am thinking about what I want to post on davidmarstonwrites. I was disappointed with the entries of late 2011. They lacked cohesion. They seemed too forced, too for the sake of it. Then I had an extremely productive fiction writing spell through January. The blog has been ignored and deserved something special to reignite it.

In May, the London Mayoral elections will take place. I think I write well about London and so it seems an easy win to write about the city, about different areas to before. I began to play around with different ideas and models in my head during the long car journey.

We pass a train of women in brightly coloured saris which match the breaking sun. They carry almighty trunks of timber atop their heads. This chain is spread out by the length of the wood and the stamina of the women. The older and younger clustering at the back whilst the fitter ones stalk ahead. Every time I think we’ve passed them all another appears a hundred metres or so down the road, her hefty load perfectly balanced on her crown.

I consider walking or cycling the north and south circulars combined, or as closely as I can where they become multi-lane arteries, to tell of what I see; to try and understand how living so close to a main road which doesn’t even express you in or out of the city but just ensnares it would affect people. I quickly give up on that idea as not only mildly unworkable but also far too much like a rehash Iain Sinclairs’s London Orbital.

Outside, as we stretched into mid-morning, the upturned end of a school bus protrudes out of a ditch. A scattering of men stand around scratching their heads and looking ponderous, as though it were nothing more than a minor inconvenience. The driver mutters something about taxis being better than buses. There is a shape underneath a blanket on the roadside. We don’t stop.

I consider taking individual areas of London which have significance for me and writing how they came to be and what they mean to me. I think about Bloomsbury, Maida Vale, Highbury, Greenwich, consciously trying to steer away from anywhere I’ve covered before, but I struggle to find enough places with anything more than a tenuous connection. I bore myself.

The driver pulls over at a small roadside shrine. A squat grey stone structure with higgled minarets of towers which a grey bearded man sitting cross legged outside. The old man is wrapped in blankets and he sways steadily as though the rhythmic motion warms him under the spotlight of sun. The driver hands over some small coins as an offering and in exchange he receives a coconut. The shell is cracked on the kerbside, the milk drained into a cup and the sweet white flesh passed through the open window. The driver munches, making satisfied noises, before offering some to us. I am starving having not eaten properly the day before due to a stomach upset, but decline as my gut still throbs pathetically. My girlfriend accepts and happily chews as we crawl up a tightly looping snake pass across the mountains.

History, I think to myself. We are absorbing ourselves in Indian history, why don’t I do the same for London. A big sweeping macro history, from the earliest legends to the twenty-first century. A history of life and death in the city. I still need a hook, a narrative device to transport the reader through time. The obvious solution is to mirror it with the election race, draw comparisons with policies and the inevitable circus performances that typify a campaign for office with the significant twists and turns in the city’s lifetime. That’s not bad, it’s interesting, but it lacks emotion. I need something else, something more personal. I’m not sure where I am in it all.

Ten days later and I am sitting on a balcony overlooking the Udaipurian hills. My skin is dusty from a dry hike during the heat of the day, through forest and farmland, past a sacred cave shrine, the tumbled down village schools and the distant roar of trail bikes in Cheetah country. The scene is calm. Below me stretches out straw coloured grasses cut with dirt tracks along which goats are herded with an accompanying jingle of the bells. The blaze of the sun, suddenly much warmer than in Satna, has dipped behind the opposite hill’s summit, a star blacked out by life.

I am reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, a brick of a novel that’s been lurking around on my bookshelves for years and only by restricting myself to three similarly massive novels, two of which I’ve already finished, have I forced myself to finally dive on in. I’ve never really got on that well with Dickens, finding his voice enjoyable enough but his plotting is somewhat meandering, as though the original monthly instalments format forced him into unnecessary padding whilst he figured out where to go next or to fill up the duration of his contract. I bought Bleak House from a small junk shop in Honor Oak Park owned by a withered spider of an old man in a beige shop coat who, upon discovering me rummaging through the box of books in the corner, tried to sell me more “racey” titles he kept under the counter. I took the Dickens largely just to be able to leave.

Sitting in the evening sun, I place the paperback face down on the metal table and look out at the view again. It’s distracting me from reading, but then so are the thoughts rattling around the back of my head. Davidmarstonwrites, if it is about anything, is about writing and so I need a writing link to the history of London. Many writers set their novels in London, but few can be called quintessentially Londinium except perhaps Dickens. I sighed. I was going to have to brush up on the canon, but I still needed a route in to Charles. What would a writer I don’t terribly care for be doing in the background all the time?

The following day we visit a museum in Udaipur filled with fragments from archaeological digs. I read something I now can’t quite recall, something about receptacles for the soul. A way of storing one after death.

I look up and catch a glimpse of myself in a glass cabinet. Wearing sunglasses I look how I always imagine Harry Noble, the lead character of my still unpublished novel You’ll Never be Joe Strummer, looks. Harry started off as a caricature of myself, a way for me to express my disdain at the world without it actually being me. The longer I worked with him, the more real he became until he gained his own life and voice. He did and said things even at my most extreme I would never countenance, but he always looked a bit like me just with permanently affixed shades.

Ideas rush into place. I’ll write a history of London. I’ll explore the city with a fictional version of myself inexplicably manifest carrying a glass vessel which contains the soul of Charles Dickens whilst also passing commentary of the mayoral election. Genius, I smugly think. That will be a doddle.

Six weeks after returning to London it is late at night and the page is still blank.

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