Monday, December 21, 2015

Write About Now

In my writing group everyone has a self-defined role. I'm the one who points out the anachronisms. I do it in contemporary fiction as well. What is truth anyway? Dave Haslam wrote a book about the 70s called "Not ABBA", so annoyed was he at the constant reduction of the seventies to a band that were, yes, very popular, but probably weren't played out that much at discos at the time - not when you had northern soul, disco, funk, power pop, glam etc. Picking up an old tape of singles I'd recorded in 1989, its noticeable that the Stone Roses appear stuck in between 80s remnants such as the Wonderstuff, and that the "baggy" records that are ubiquitous at retro discos are much outnumbered by obscure house and new jack swing tracks that we actually listened to at time. In Booker winning "The Line of Beauty" Alan Hollinghurst's "eighties" is a much praised confection, but how real is it really? The gay man dancing with Mrs. Thatcher, its centrepiece of historical rewriting, is actually not that surprising - she had a penchant for the gallant and flamboyant after all - less convincing is the absence of Hi-NRG music from the sountrack. Film versions of the eighties pull out the cliches, and modern actors and actresses often get their "eighties gear" from central casting as accurate as when the Two Ronnies dressed up as characters in the Regency court.

It is my conviction that fiction's veracity is perhaps one of its highest callings. I have read about the 1832 reform act in my history classes, but I visualise it through the lens of "Middlemarch" - even though that too was a historical novel at the time. It is why historians like looking through contemporary documents. But contemporary documents only tell a partial story - they can't tell you what its like to live through a time - what it feels like to be, say, 18 at Woodstock or at the Sex Pistols, or an 80s rave.

I've always written fiction in the moment. It's part of what I do. Its not a lazy option, as I find having a time and a place fixed can be endlessly helpful in making the story and characters - the made up bit - work for me. But nothing quite ages like the contemporary. At what point did we go from it being ostentatious to give a character a mobile phone, to being silly not to? Reading through old stories for a pamphlet I'm preparing, I found characters sitting at "the end of the non-smoking section" of the bar. I'd forgotten that before the indoor smoking ban, bars that had more than one space, frequently had a smoking and non-smoking section. Maybe such pedantic detail sounds awkward in a story, and a good editor would get rid of such hostages to fortune - but maybe not - maybe the period detail is the important thing.

So I'm being sparing with my editor's pen when going through these stories. I'd forgotten, as well, that the Arndale bus station wasn't a victim of the 1996 IRA bomb, but of the regeneration afterwards which shut off Cannon Street. I regret I wasn't taking photos of the world around me in the nineties, but at least I was writing about the world I lived in. There is a visuality in verbal pictures. I've been struck this year, more than any other, how distant my remembered Manchester is from the one that now exists - the plethora of bars and restaurants - the sense that we don't go out in hope that something will turn up, but use our smart phones as instant gratification machines. Also, I was younger then, I am older now. I am surprised at reading about a life that didn't care too much about when the last bus or train was, but instead went searching for another bar, another band, another something.

Write about now, and you will have something that is more than the story, more than a diary entry - but a version of yourself that you have long forgotten ever existed, and that's whether you're a protagonist in your own life story a la Caulfield or Copperfield, or whether you're the guiding hand. As I look around and find our newly gentrified world less interesting in some ways, I also realise that the stories are still there. I'm glad I've got this snapshot of Manchester, a city I've lived in longer than anywhere else, and which I used to regularly write about. I'll hopefully have a little selection of these old stories ready by the New Year. I hope that they are more than  just nostalgia, as once they were contemporary.

1 comment:

Jim H. said...

Yes. The process of a work of art becoming a cultural artifact. Always a timely subject.