Thursday, 23 June 2011

Flaw plan

Care of Wooden Floors is set in an apartment in an inter-war moderne block in an unnamed central-European city. During the writing of the book, I made a number of sketch plans of the apartment, the block and the surrounding streets as aids to memory or to work through specific narrative problems. Later, as I discussed the design of the book with Clare Smith, my editor at HarperPress, the idea arose that we could use one of these floor plans as an endpaper for the book in hardback.

I was enthusiastic. When I was a child, I had a weakness for fantasy novels - and gravitated towards those that had a map at the front. Tolkien must have started this tendency with his beautiful maps of Middle Earth in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A map at the front of a fantasy book worked as a kind of blurb, a promise of the adventures to come - you just knew that the mountain-ringed forbidden city or the skull-shaped island fortress jutting from a wreck-garnished sea was going to crop up somewhere. It would be a hell of a tease if they didn't. Moreover, the map is part of the escapist promise of fantasy: that you are entering a fully realised world, one that extends beyond the bounds of the story, and that even if the stinging deserts and haunted swamps are barely alluded to, they they can exist more fully in your own imaginative rendering of the world. Nowadays, my map fix comes primarily for nonfiction books of history - Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, which I'm steadily gnawing my way through at the moment, has a fine selection throughout its 900 pages. The only work of non-fantasy literary fiction I can think of with a map at the front is Toby Litt's Deadkidsongs, although I think there must be others.

Care of Wooden Floors isn't a fantasy, but I liked the idea of a map as a tribute to those happy memories of childhood reading - and also as an expression of the rational interior-design ambitions of Oskar, the flat's owner. But I asked to re-draw the master sketch map for inclusion, to iron out some small inconsistencies in it here an there and to ensure that it was the most accurate possible rendition of the flat.

Almost immediately, I ran into problems. I already knew that the master floorplan didn't match up with my mental picture of the flat, and the way it was described in the book. That was why I wanted to redraw it. But attempts to iron out the difficulties simply created new problems. In effect, I could not draw a floorplan of the flat - it was an impossibility.

This doesn't mean that there's a mistake in the book, or that an impossible or impractical configuration of rooms is described. Although the flat is, over the course of 300 pages, described in some detail, it's not empirically described. The book isn't a blueprint. I didn't give measurements, proportions and orientations of every aspect of the building. A reader could sketch an entirely reasonable floorplan of the flat without having to resort to extra dimensions or folds in spacetime. But I'm fairly sure it wouldn't match up with mine.

What I was dealing with is three different versions of the same flat:

1. The flat as it exists in my imagination
2. The flat as described in the book
3. The flat as it might exist in the imagination of the reader.

Version 2 is based on version 1; version 3 is based on version 2. It made most sense to base a floorplan on version 2, to avoid "error". But when I looked at the result, a prominent detail failed to match my mental picture of Oskar's home. This detail is irrelevant to the plot or to anyone's understanding of the book; and it isn't described in the book, it is simply the result of reconciling two aspects of layout that might otherwise conflict. But it troubled me to commit to graph paper something that was "untrue". Fixing it threatened to raise more problems than it solved.

We decided not to include a floorplan. My own reservations were only part of this decision - it was also considered too dry a note to open on, and potentially distracting to a reader. I would much rather a reader builds up their own image of the flat from the words, rather than being guided down to exact details by a plan. But the episode has caused me to realise the protean nature of what I've written. Which is the "true" flat? All three versions are, in their way, but I have to confront the fact that my mental picture of the flat is now the least important of those versions, and the reader's version is the most important.

Thinking on about maps in fiction, I remembered (from reading Martin Amis' criticism, I think) that Nabokov drew maps of great books to illustrate his lectures on English literature. Here's Nabokov's map of Stephen and Bloom's routes around Dublin in Joyce's Ulysses:

Nabokov recommended that instructors draw up diagrams the setting of books to wring the maximum amount of sensual detail from them, as a route to fuller understanding of the author's intentions. It's only what is described that matters; writing is in part a matter of choosing what to describe and what not to describe. A detail that existed in my conception, but which is not described at all, cannot be said to matter at all. To suggest it in a floorplan when it doesn't exist in the text would sprain the imaginative sinews that any reader spins around the descriptive bones the author provides. That would hardly be fair or desirable.

(The hunt for Nabokov's Dublin map led me to this rather wonderful project, a detailed, annotated Google map of Dublin overlaid with a historic map.)

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A Cover for COWF

Care of Wooden Floors now has a cover:

I'm hugely pleased with this. It was designed by Jo Walker at HarperPress, and I was fortunate enough to be allowed along for part of the process, making up the lettering in Mr Smith's letterpress workshop.

Making up the type.

The type on a galley, about to be transferred to the press. All these years in magazine journalism we've talked about "galleys" meaning proofs that haven't yet been laid out, but this is a galley in the original sense - a metal tray for carrying type.

Making an impression from the type.

Spot the deliberate mistake. It's actually pretty hard to proofread when everything is upside-down and backwards.

Jo inspecting her handiwork. Thanks, Jo!

There's a full set of images up on my Flickr stream, and some videos were made of the process - hopefully those will be online soon too.

Monday, 13 June 2011

British Paradoxes

"London, where the streets are paved with gold, and the gardens with cement", leads a Guardian article on the loss of wildlife habitats resulting from people paving over their front gardens.
The biggest survey ever conducted of private space in the capital, taken by the London Wildlife Trust, shows it is getting greyer – threatening its reputation of being one of the world's greenest cities because of its extensive public parks and gardens.

The city is losing the equivalent of two-and-a-half Hyde Parks of greenery a year from its private, domestic gardens – about 3,000 ha (7,410 acres), says the report.

Lamentable. So what is to be done? Legislation, perhaps, or biodiversity conversation areas to go with the existing system of conservation areas? But what about the Briton's inalienable right to do whatever he pleases to his home? But of course we are in the fork of a defining British paradox. We have this generalised sense of a shared patrimony that must be protected, which we sum up as our "heritage". And yet we also have this pugnacious sense of private property and natural justice, of rights and entitlements. So the very person who might complain about the loss of butterfly habitats and deterioration of streetscape caused by his neighbour's concreting of his front garden might be apoplectic at rage if the council stopped him putting up a shed in his back garden. Both sides of this paradox are of course "common sense", and reason buckles under the distorting pressure of its internal contradictions.

Similarly, everyone wants a home with a garden - surveys repeatedly show that this is the national preference. If this is what people want, then it must be right, that's just common sense. And everyone wants total protection of the green belt, and indeed all undeveloped green space. Where are these homes going to go? So we end up with absurd, cramped brick boxes on ludicrous coasters of turf - an attempt to meet a typological requirement in defiance of all reason. We very obviously share many things - our cities, our countryside, our past. And yet we despise the idea of dealing with them in a communal manner.

These paradoxes - and there are dozens like them, on everything from the "nanny state" to the BBC - are the logical outcome of 30 years of government according to the vindictive petty jealousies of the Daily Mail. They are rooted in that poisonous discourse, in which it seems every politician talks to you, personally, as an individual - you are of course responsible, hard-working, ordinary - in order to warn you about the others, the ones who are taking advantage and ruining everything. It is a mean, small-minded pattern of thought, the politics of Gollum. It has stacked this country with lose-lose paradoxes and zero-sum games, and at times it feels as if these paradoxes are about to block out all light from above and hope of change. Like when a Labour leader stands up and - instead of announcing a national programme of housebuilding, which would allow thousands more to share in the benefits of a council home - announces that "hardworking, responsible" people (like you!) would be given preference for the existing tiny number of council homes, over the "shirkers" (you know, the others).

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Announcing "Toxic Tourism"

It's in The Bookseller, so at last I can start talking about the second book! Provisionally titled "Toxic Tourism", it will be an unconventional travel guide to three places in the former Soviet Union: the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Aral Sea. The publisher will be HarperPress, who of course is also publishing Care of Wooden Floors. Toxic Tourism will be out a few months after 2012.

This is under the umbrella of the Unknown Fields trip in July (which makes the Bookseller's use of the past tense a little puzzling). I'm hugely grateful to the AA's Liam Young, who put out a call for a writer to accompany the trip at the beginning of May, to Robin Harvie and Clare Smith at Harper Collins, and to my agent Antony Topping. So, exciting times afoot. I'll fill in some more details later.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Latest Hallucinations

I've been up to my neck in "proper writing" and neglecting the blog lately. So this is one of those somewhat unsatisfying "read me elsewhere" posts - made extra unsatisfying by the fact that a lot of this stuff isn't online.

One thing that is online is this review of a small show in Eindhoven called "The New Psychedelica". The show really scratches an itch for those of us who feel that art hasn't really plumbed to depths of weirdness offered by the digital world.

Also online is this review of Locals Only, a photographic record of California's 1970s skate culture, at men's style website Jock & Nerds.

The new issue of Icon has a long piece by me mulling what London's new crop of skyscrapers means for the city, in the company of sculptor, polymath and expert Londoner Richard Wentworth. There's also a much shorter piece by me about David Chipperfield's Hepworth Wakefield.

Print-only (for the time being) but free is The Clerkenwell Post, an attractive zine about all things Clerkenwell. It was produced by Icon's publisher and launched at Clerkenwell Design Week. If you're in the area copies can still be found - there's a piece in there by me about the Barbican.

Pretty soon there'll be a flurry of news about the novel, now a mere eight months away from publication. Only eight months! It seems like just six months ago it was fourteen months away from publication. But here's something: you can pre-order it on Amazon now.

Next week there will (I hope) be some news about the Secret Project which has been eating up a lot of my time behind the scenes.

And I will be doing more blogging soon.