Thursday, 12 January 2012

Notes: Starling City, East Sussex

When you create a new blog on Blogger, you are asked for a title, which can be anything, and a web address, which has to be not already taken by another blogger, and ought, ideally, to be closely related to the title. So I had to start thinking about an overall title for the project a lot sooner than I would normally expect to find one for a novel. Phrases like "Blog a Novel" were already taken, and besides I wanted something a bit catchy with, preferably, an image in it.

I thought of one of my literary heroes, the novelist Patrick Hamilton. He has a couple of jokey titles that I like a lot, Hangover Square and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. I was thinking of a novel set in a seaside town, and I suddenly remembered the swarms of starlings you see in such places. A dreadful pun occurred to me: Starlingrad. It wasn't taken by another blogger, not surprisingly. But could I bring myself to use it? I didn't mind the badness of the pun, which is no worse than Hangover Square, but it was in poor taste: neither Stalingrad, the scene of a bloody battle in the Second World War, nor Stalin himself seemed appropriate subjects for jokes. So I kept the image and ditched the joke: Starling City. It will do as a title for the blog and a working title for the novel.

The starlings swarm every winter evening around the pier in Aberystwyth, where I work at the University. New creative writing students discover them with delight, and put them in their poems and stories; I've written a short poem about them myself. The image is a bit of an Aberystwyth cliche by now, though it's still fresh enough for outsiders. My title, however, is not primarily a reference to Aberystwyth, but to Brighton, where I lived for three years in my mid-twenties. Peter Whitcomb's photograph shows the starlings above the disused West Pier in Brighton (The West Pier is the title of a Brighton-set novel by Hamilton, though it wasn't disused in his day), but that isn't one of my memories: I remember them most vividly rustling and chattering in the trees outside the Royal Pavilion. Nevertheless I love the fact that these birds make a link between my present and my past; Aber has always reminded me of a miniature Brighton.

I came to Brighton in 1979, at the age of 22, to start an MA at the University of Sussex, and remained there three years, having abandoned the MA for a PhD, which I also gave up on when my grant money ran out. (I got my PhD from Southampton many years later.) Those three years were a liminal time for me, and Brighton a liminal space: I was extending my student years with no real aim in mind, except to have the sort of good times I had always imagined were part of student life and which I felt I had missed out on as an undergraduate at Cambridge. Sex was the real issue, of course: while I was at Cambridge, I was able to tell myself that my failure to get a girlfriend was due to the imbalance between male and female student numbers (eight to one, when I was there), but I hadn't done any better in an in-between year spent in London and Hampshire, and my self-confidence was non-existent. I was also still traumatized by the sudden death of my father when I was nineteen, which had precipitated a sort of breakdown a month or two later. Psychologically I was a mess, though, as I now realize from my teaching experience, lots of people go through similar things at the same age.

One of the first things that happened after my arrival in Sussex was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979, and the consequent renewal of the Cold War. Suddenly everyone I knew was terrified of nuclear war, or even a conventional war. There were notices up at the university advising students what to do in the event of a reintroduction of conscription. I walked into a pub one evening to find two old men singing 'It's a long way to Tiperrary'. When they'd finished, one of them said, 'We'll all be singing that again soon.' I used to walk round Brighton memorizing it, with a sense that the beautiful Regency buildings wouldn't be there much longer. That general anxiety certainly contributed to the breakdown that followed.

It didn't come, however, till about a year later, There were two main symptoms, panic attacks, which I had experienced before, after the death of my father, and another, less well-known phenomenon, attacks of depersonalization or derealization. There's a brilliant description of these in the opening of Hangover Square:
It was though a shutter had fallen. It had fallen noiselessly, but the thing had been so quick that he could only think of it as a crack or a snap. It had come over his brain as a sudden film, induced by a foreign body, might come over the eye. He felt that if only he could 'blink' his brain it would at once be dispelled. A film. Yes, it was like the other sort of 'film' too -- a 'talkie'. It was as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the sound-track had failed. The figures on the screen continued to move, to behave more or less logically; but they were figures in a new, silent, indescribably eerie world. Life, in fact, which had once been for him a moment ago a 'talkie', had all at once become a silent film. And there was no music.
At the time, I didn't know anyone else had ever experienced this. I thought I was going mad, and that finally caused me to seek help. To cut a long story short, I had therapy, learned to control the symptoms, became happier in my social life, and, eventually, managed to get a girlfriend. It was a long and often painful process, but it worked. At the end of three years, I left without degree, girlfriend or any job to go to, but I had achieved a resolution all the same, and nothing was ever as bad again.

I've told very little of this story in my writing, even though I have always known it was the turning point of my life. Something has been stopping me. Sometimes I think if I write about it I will exhaust my creativity, disperse the inner turmoil that makes me write at all. At other times I think my inability to deal with this period in my work is a block to my creativity, the reason why I've always found writing so difficult. Either it's a case of sublimation, the repressed material going on to feed other creative outlets, or of catharsis, the bung needing to be taken out in order to release a flood that has been trapped inside all these years. I don't know which is right, but I have decided to take a chance on the catharsis model. I feel I am at another of those transitional stages, this time in my writing life: I have a reasonably successful career as a poet and academic, but I have always felt I was capable of more than I've achieved so far. And at my present age (55), and in the present state of the literary world, I can't afford to waste much more time.

My next posting will look at some of the technical issues involved in translating life into fiction.


  1. the whole piece, how open it was... god, do I have to spell it out?

  2. The Hamilton quote reads like a description of an epiphany in reverse chiming perfectly with my own thoughts on epiphanies. I was thinking that in some ways the highlighting of epiphanies can be dishonest - it can seem to indicate progress towards truth, whilst I feel epiphanies are more like a whitewash - the building that was always there is suddenly rendered clear. However, at this point the degeneration of this coat of whitewash has begun, the shutter is falling again.
    Once again you have outlined (what must be common) fears faced by aspiring writers. Will personal revelation leave them without protection and if resolution is reached will that remove the need to write? And what if you just sink again into the quicksand of unresolved emotions?

  3. Just had a discussion about epiphanies today in a PhD viva. Yes, they're revelations, but it's by no means obvious what they're revelations of. Talking about Joyce's 'Araby' none of us could agree what the revelation at the end actually was. More a feeling than a moral, perhaps.