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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Balzac's fan-mail and must authors be nice guys?

A couple of years ago I attended a talk on letters to Balzac at his house in Paris. During his debt-ridden, workaholic, turbulent life, Balzac received thousands of fan letters -mainly from women. They were, it seems, thrilled and consoled to find in the lusty, shambolic, fat, French bulldog of a man that was Honore de Balzac, someone who understood them, who spoke of their daily lives and the loneliness and frustration of being a woman in 19th century France. Nobody had ever done that before. Polite society required that they put a brave face on their solitude. But Balzac, like all good novelists, had no time for masks. He wrote the painful truth and in expressing that pain, as in all good art, he helped to alleviate it. In another time and another place, Jacques Brel, the great Belgian singer/songwriter would shrug and say of songs like "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and "Amsterdam", "I'm an aspirin."

Did Balzac respond to all those letters? Did he 'interact' with his readers? Fret about his public image? No. He hurtled on - a great force of nature doing what he had to do. Just as Beethoven had hurtled on decades earlier doing what he had to do. HE would certainly have been seen as a 'jerk' by the general public. And no, I'm not leaving the women out. Did Virginia Woolf worry about building a platform? Did she spend hours each day building her image? No. She wrote and wrote and wrote.

And years later a reader in Des Moines or Bangalore can pick up one of her books and , as Alan Bennett said in "The History Boys", sense that "a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you here... set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."

Those hands can reach out from anywhere at any time. Just this morning an author as contemporary as Douglas Coupland reached out across the bay in Vancouver to talk to me about 21st century loneliness in his novel, Eleanor Rigby.

But, if a writer's hands are tied up with building his image or signing in to post grovelling comments on agents' and publishers' websites, they will have strayed so far away from the truth of what it is to be human and their duty to share that truth with us, that their worth as a writer will be forever lost.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

My internet addiction - one woman's true and terrifying tale

Neuroscientist, Baroness Susan Greenfield, has expressed concern that 'screen culture' will change the physiological make-up of our brains. Long hours of jumping from one site to another, poking people on Facebook and Twittering at anyone you fancy could lead, she predicted, to internet-induced ADHD.

I like to think that as a middle-aged novelist, I’m too mature and sensible, too much of a mental marathon runner to go sprinting around the internet. But like a lot of the planet, I do spend most of the day and a lot of the night dangling at the end of that thousand miles long umbilical cord that links me to the Google HQ in Mountain View, California. Where I used to work alone with just the sound of real letters dropping on to the doormat, I now sit with the equivalent of a great encyclopaedia at wrist-length. And I can't stop leafing through the bloody thing.

Last night I tried to break away and watch a DVD of “Wall-E”. Watching a film would once have been a pleasure in itself. Go to cinema, watch film, go home. The pleasure remains but these days, I feel compelled to find out who wrote it, directed it, who they married, what their zodiac sign is, whether they suffer from IBS or ever won a trophy for ice dancing. Once I know everything I never needed to know the guys behind Wall-E (bowels in fine fettle ) I’m off again happily rummaging around google. Feeling a bit hungry after the movie so the first hit in last night’s google history is:
A recipe for red lentil soup in the New York Times. No red lentils so wander over
to some Arkansas woman’s recipe for butternut squash soup. She’s a sneaky evangelist and wants me to think about Jesus while I chop my onions so I head instead to:
Listen Again on Radio 4 where Melvyn Bragg and Steve Jones are talking about Darwin. At one point Jones mentions the powerful role of the earthworm so I drop my squash and go back to google:
On subject of worms, why is Wormwood Scrubs prison  called Wormwood Scrubs? Still don’t know. Feel let down by Wikipedia and thought of grim London prison a bit depressing so:
Download happy Merengue music from iTunes.
Look up how to make meringues. Whoops! Spelling mistake that because, of course, I want to learn:
"How to Dance the Merengue" - foot positions diagrams displayed on website.
Couldn't cope with foot position diagrams so go to YouTube video: "How to dance the Merengue." Dance happily along for all of ten minutes with Youtube's Ricardo or Enrique then:
Look up favorite old Steve Martin movie, My Blue Heaven - features great Merengue dancing with Rick Moranes
Look up Steve Martin’s age. How come he not worn out by Merengue when I exhausted?
Squash soup boiled over while dancing so look up “Soup boiled is a soup spoiled - is this true?” under proverbs and old wive’s tales which leads to:
Discussion of cliches on Stephen Fry’s "English Delight "- some other radio thing with him talking about language. Can’t actually LISTEN - too busy dancing but Fry is
twittering, “a kakapoo shagged my leg.” With non-merenguing hand, I read his Tweets because like everyone else on the planet, I want him to be my uncle. Apparently kakapoo currently in with more of a chance.
Fry’s site mentions his American series which leads me to stop dancing and ponder some of Obama’s baffling cabinet choices. I decide to drop in to see what:
Michael Moore has to say. He’s pissed off with choice of Surgeon General so I get pissed off too.
Surgeon General leads to deep thoughts on science/politics and back to Melvyn talking to biologist, Steve Jones. I confuse Steve Jones with Richard Dawkins so go tootling off to look up:
“First Atheist bus drives through London" - am tickled to see a picture of a double decker bus with a poster along its side "There is probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life."
Decide to take bus’s advice and not worry so play the Merengue tune again. Starting to flag - lie down, try to Google ‘Fifty super foods to keep you dancing past 50 but fingers too tired to reach the “F” key. Pass out.

Susan Greenfield may be understating the future problem. I think the future may be more dramatic. Like the over-eating man in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life", all this cramming rubbish into our brains might one day do to them what all that mountain of food did to the mountainous man. They will, quite simply, explode. Spontaneous explosions will occur by the million all over the planet. Out with all the grey jelly will pour "five thousand things you didn't know about Michael Palin", "how to remove tea stains from pink polyester", "Kakapoo - what's the point?" and on and on the great torrent of knowledge will flow - all that useless, scattered information will stream across the globe. The globe that will be abandoned and full of garbage. I know because I watched "Wall-E" at some point last night. Steve Martin directed it and he was born under the sign of.... or was that Richard Dawkins but no, he's driving buses these days or is he the new Surgeon General? No that's Michael Moore.

Anyway, if we all learned to Merengue, I swear the world would be a better place. And so does Charles Darwin.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Billy Joel, my late mum and me

When my mum was in her late 70s, she became obsessed by an old Billy Joel song, "My Life."

She would dance round the kitchen and sing, "I don't care what you say this is my life - go ahead with your own life - leave me alone." I didn't pay much attention because she was always singing and dancing (a habit that is overtaking me with advancing age.) I also couldn't quite see the attraction of this song - from the little I knew of Billy Joel, this didn't seem to be one of his best.

Only when she was long dead, did it dawn on me that she loved it because she was finally rid of us children, rid of her husband and free as a bird. In her late 70s, she'd taken up ballroom dancing, found a boyfriend and was having the time of her life. But I was far too involved with my own, at the time, less happy life, to register any of that.

My first commission after she died on June 27, 2000, was to go to Stresa in Italy and write about the setting for Hemingway's Farewell to Arms for the Daily Express. I was a guest at the Grand Hotel where Hemingway lived for a while and set some key scenes of what was the first great love story I have ever read. But I felt gloomy and sad having just lost mum and the weather was grey and gloomy too.

One dreary afternoon, I stopped for tea in the bar and realized that the only other people in there were Billy Joel and his daughter. And in that enormous hotel, their suite was next door to my room. Mother would have been delighted.

Last week, a day or two after the 9th anniversary of my mother's death, I was in the local Chinese produce store, standing in line with my mangoes, broccoli and bananas when a doo-wop song came over the speakers. I didn't recognize the singer but was so taken by the bouncy, happy lyrics and harmonies that I had to let several people go ahead of me in the queue in order to hear it to the end.
I memorized a couple of lines that I really liked:

"If you said goodbye to me tonight, there would still be music left to write. What else could I do, I'm so inspired by you, that hasn't happened for the longest time."
The song hit home because I, too, had recently had a brief encounter with later-life love.
"Once I thought my innocence was gone. Now I know that happiness goes on. " As a devoted Wagnerian I can safely say that never once did old Richard put a lovely truth quite so succinctly. And one last line of happy wisdom:
"I don't care what consequence it brings. I have been a fool for lesser things."

I skipped off home to prepare a feature on Wagner... and look up this doo-wop song on Wikipedia..
And, of course, as probably everyone on the planet except me knows, it was Billy Joel again - singing all 14 tracks of this wise and happy 1980s song.

A couple of days earlier when I'd drunk a toast to my mother on that anniversary of her death, a rainbow had appeared right outside my window. Any Wagnerian knows how symbolic that is. But I'd like to think that mum decided a bit of bopping frivolity was also in order - and browsed the iTunes store to make sure I found the perfect song by her favourite singer.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

A plea for Cultural Vagabonds and Existential Chancers

I can't plan. And no, it's not an excuse. It's a lack somewhere in my brain not unlike the lack of ability to do crosswords.  Planning ahead strains my brain in much the way that thinking about infinity makes most peoples' brains ache.  I've kept quiet about this failing - and failing it is. Most of the people I know plan mercilessly.  Their diaries are filled with entries for dinners, lunches, theatre outings, hikes, holidays and on and on it goes. If you happen to come along, and I always do, after a line has been entered in the diary for that day, well, tough, you will not be seen. Merciless.

For years, and this very much feels like coming out of a closet,  my diary was empty because most of the time, work aside, I don't really know what I will be doing in five hours let alone five days. Make that not 'don't know' but 'can't know'.  I do my best but some strange mist seems to drift into my brain  somewhere between me and the future. I try to imagine those distant five hours but remain stuck, welded into the present. Zen masters, Taoists and probably the Dalai Lama would probably applaud my own personal 'power of Now'. Most of my friends, with three glorious exceptions (morning Don, Fleur and Keet) loathe it. And in the end they drift away.

Airlines, railroads, hotels, theatres, restaurants consider me a loser, a bumbling fool whom they can exploit at will. (Try getting that elusive Eurostar £59 return when you want to go to Paris like, um, now.) 

But this week in The Independent, Howard Jacobson vindicated me in his article on buying tickets to the opera.
 And  he admitted to being one of us, or is that 'one of me'?  If, he says, you  attempt to get a decent seat at Covent Garden without booking months in advance, they look at you as though you're insane. But, explains Jacobson "Opera itself teaches that our lives change from happy to sad, from purposeful to pointless in the course of half an aria."  Nonetheless seats at the ROH are 'bagged years in advance by people prepared to bank on a) their continued existence b) their precise whereabouts and c) the music they're going to be in the mood to listen to." 

Of course theatres (and airlines, restaurants, railroads and friends) have to plan. But Jacobson puts in a little plea for theatres to reserve just a few good seats for us - the people he describes as "opera's natural audience - the existential chancers and cultural vagabonds of our dull society?"

So, at last, I have an identity. All those years of shame and humiliation and loneliness and it turns out that I'm an 'existential chancer and a cultural vagabond.'

Jacobson also dares to utter a word that occasionally passes through my mind in relation to this ruthlessly planned society - "dull".

Yes, I know bridges have to be planned to be built, theatres have to know if they are going to have any bums on seats, airlines and railroads have to prepare schedules, and calculate how many meals they need to load. The majority of the world, and the life on it, has to be planned.

But not all of it. And not all of us. So this is a plea for the 'existential chancers'. Why not give us a chance occasionally? Life might be a little livelier and more fun for everyone if just a glimmer of spontaneity were allowed into this stuffy world. Eurostar could offer  just a few standby seats at a decent rate for the last minute brigade. So could Covent Garden. 

As for the General Public and my friends in it, you too should give us a chance. We're really quite nice you know; most of us eat with our mouths closed and keep our elbows off the table. Our bumbling, freewheeling lives can lead to some fairly entertaining adventures that are probably more fun to hear about (at that last-minute dinner we would love to share with you) than they were to experience at first-hand.  Everybody loves my story of getting into Bayreuth for the last act of Wagner's Die Walkure ("blimey, she went all the way to Germany and stood outside hoping for a ticket!") but the joy of hearing the music only marginally outweighed the nervous tension and energy expended in sneaking inside for those magnificent final  moments.

I can hear the planners now:"Then you bloody well should have applied for a ticket years in advance like the rest of us, like the sensible people." I know, I know but the thing is I can't because I'm an Existential Chancer. We're the latest oppressed minority, and we need your tolerance and understanding. 

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Stalked by Stephen Fry

So, in a bored moment yesterday, I decided to tweet. All I did was click on 'join', fill in my name and come up with a user name. I got very pissed off at this point because all my choices (TheValkyrie, SnowQueen etc) were taken. Finally I came up with LaValkyrie and then got fed up with the whole business and went back to some semblance of work.

That was that, I thought, but five minutes ago, I got a message saying that Joe Rich is now following me in Twitter. Looked up Joe and he seems to be a Jesus fan in Florida. Was digesting this when another message tells me that 'Stephen Fry is now following you on Twitter.' Cripes.'I think Stephen Fry is following about 5 million people but that's bi-polar for you.

Now what am I supposed to do? Do I follow them? Won't all this turn into a cyber version of the Hampton Court Maze scene in Three Men in a Boat? All of us going witlessly round and round until somebody climbs up a tree and calls out some sensible instructions.  You're the tallest Stephen and you've got the deepest voice. I think it's going to be up to you.