Postcard from Munich

PP contributor Simon Goodall has recently upped sticks and moved from London to Munich. Here, in his first postcard from the city, a trip to the city’s Olympic stadium gets him thinking about 2012…

Having let rain put me off my original plan to join an ex-pat cycle tour on my first Sunday in Munich, I fell back on option B and headed for the Olympic park for a swim. A trip to Munich’s Olympic swimming pool turns out to be a treat: it’s so much easier to count your lengths when they last fifty metres. Added to which, the pool has a huge open window facing out on to the park and is itself a spectacular structure. The spectator stands curl round half the pool in a clean concrete crescent, all following the curve of the hillside like an ancient amphitheatre. Covering hill and pool is a solid perspex tarpaulin that looks like a cross between several huge tepees and a circus tent. This transparent tent mimics the Alps that on a clear day can be seen behind it and continues across the entrance square to cover the principal buildings, including the stands of the main stadium (until recently the home of Bayern Munich).

It’s democratic people-friendly parkland and the openness and greenness of the development is very reflective of Munich as a whole and the spirit of community and open access that pervades the city. Much of suburban Munich is as close as you can get to the Le Corbusier dream, with people living in high-rise flats surrounded by acres and acres of greenery and forest. Here high-rise is not synonymous with deprivation and crime. When I look out of the window I could be in the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, but for the well-kept lawns, the quiet, the good air, and the peaceable old ladies digging the communal garden. The buildings though are near identical.

Of course the spirit that created this was very much a postwar one. The designers of the Olympic park, at pains to avoid the sort of monumentalism on show in Germany’s previous Berlin games, sunk the big stadia into the landscape. The 80,000-seater arena looks like a small hill with a funny bat-wing roof over it until you actually get inside and it all opens out below you. The thirty-year anniversary brochure I purchased in the gift shop still makes much of this ‘people’s park’ intent.

Of course, the 1972 games were overshadowed by tragedy – the Munich massacre, an attack directed at Israeli athletes by Palestine terrorists, which killed all eleven Israelis and several others, with accusations of gross mismanagement pinned largely on the German police. Wilfrid Spronk, General Manager of Olypiapark Múnchen GmbH, opens his introductory blurb with this optimistic glossing of those terrible events: ‘The first stormy years of new experiences are over now…’ – if this is a reference to the hijacking incident he goes no further.

What perhaps rescued the Munich Olympics from being only about terrorism is that it does have a lasting positive legacy for the city. It claims to be the first Olympics to really concentrate on the legacy issues during construction and having spent a long morning both using the facilities and wandering around I am inclined to agree with the Mayor’s ecstatic quote, again in the brochure, that ‘the Munich Olympic Park is an eldorado for sports, games, entertainment and recreation’. It definitely remains a much-used, high-quality facility, and has provided a beautiful park, tourist attraction and source of pride for the city.

Regeneration, community and the legacy product are very much at the heart of London’s Olympic plans. Forty years on the games are again to be held in a specially created park, and just like in Munich much of the landscaping will be on top of previously contaminated wasteland. The terrorist threat aside then, Munich is an encouraging example of what this sort of Olympics could achieve for London (as well as, let’s not forget, Weymouth). Perhaps the London games will be to Beijing what Munich was to Berlin: a lasting product for the city not a monumental showpiece to the world. Here’s hoping.

It’s All Right to Write

Writer Michael Amherst, whose short story ‘What I Feel’ is published in the new issue of Pen Pusher Magazine, PP15, gives some reassuring advice about the job of being a writer.

‘You write how you write,’ was the seemingly unhelpful advice given to me by Michèle Roberts, Professor of Creative Writing at UEA. However, Michèle’s advice was actually the most useful thing I’ve ever been taught about writing. Beginning my blog like this, it is tempting to tell you to read no further – nothing I can tell you or impart to you will be of any use. You write how you write: not how I write, not how Michèle writes, not how Graham Greene writes. Your rules and labours are your own; comparisons with others are meaningless, if inevitable. However, writers are endlessly looking for comfort from one another – a sign that others work in just as bizarre and seemingly ridiculous way as themselves. So I write this, not as a how-to guide, nor as advice proffered from on high (when I’m still so low) but in the hope that someone else might be reassured that the way they work is indeed ‘OK’.

If I were to begin my novel now I would do it entirely differently. I find writing a constant battle between the need to make it a workaday job like any other – with a routine and targets – and one that is still creative, still allows for disruptions and the fact that fiction writing never can be truly workaday, that sometimes the most helpful and productive thing is to stop and do nothing. Michèle gave me her advice in the middle of my Creative Writing MA. I’d written almost nothing new at that point – a common complaint of those on these courses, dried up by the pressure to produce – and I couldn’t help comparing myself to one course mate who appeared to produce a new short story a week, as well as my old housemate from university who would stay up until the small hours writing plays for stage and screen. By comparison, my paltry ideas for a short story, jotted down in a notebook over many hours in a café were clearly pathetic. I should have been hammering away at the keys; I should have been more productive. But Michèle was right. As soon as I stopped chastising myself, comparing myself, I began to loosen up. By not feeling guilty about my own process I gave myself a break. She gave me the confidence to write and work like me, not a pale imitation of my friends.

That being said, I was also being monumentally precious and self-indulgent. The less one writes the greater the pressure on the few words you do commit to paper. I was sceptical about the advice that you should write so much everyday (Graham Greene wrote 500 words before lunch). Surely this was prescriptive, a routine that would stifle creativity and make the process one of churning out to a daily word count, rather than about ideas and quality. However, when I began to go to the British Library each day I created a routine. I also destroyed the pressure on myself to produce art every time I committed pen to paper. Each day I will save what I do. Some of it is rubbish and will never see the light of day again, some of it will be useful and will find a home in something else, some of it might hold an image worth saving and sometimes it will be the germ of an idea for an entirely new piece. The thousand or so words are almost never wasted. On the days that it’s no good, it’s no good. That’s just life.

However, my earlier scepticism wasn’t entirely misplaced. Having gone from precious-blocked-Osric I had gone to a writer with a militantly Protestant work ethic. Friends kept telling me to take a break, I told them they didn’t understand how important my routine was to me. Mine was a job like any other, so don’t tell me to just skip going into the office when I don’t feel like it. Yet, having finished the second draft of my novel at the end of November, I immediately returned to the BL to begin again, to hammer out the flaws. It was a Monday morning. It was utterly dispiriting. Tuesday I broke with my tradition and wandered along the South Bank with a notebook in one hand and a collection of Conrad short stories in the other. I was taking a day off and wasn’t going to feel bad about it. If I felt called to the library I would resist and go to an exhibition instead. The day was immensely productive. I felt relaxed, creatively recharged and jotted down more fresh ideas and musings in my notebook than I had done for months.

This is the writer’s dilemma: to write you must force yourself into a routine, you must be disciplined; you can’t afford to be precious. This means getting on with the job. But the job also involves knowing when to stop. Another mistake I made was promising myself that getting half the re-draft done by the end of September would be rewarded with a long weekend away. I reached the end of September, with half of the draft complete, but felt compelled to carry on – not wanting to break my creative rhythm. This was a bad idea – not immediately or obviously so – but by then I really needed a break and it only became apparent a few weeks later when I ran out of steam, ran out of ideas and had to stop – feeling far guiltier than if I’d allowed myself the mini-holiday I’d scheduled.

If I were to write my novel now I’d allow myself an open-ended period of jotting down ideas and paragraphs. Lots of walking, wandering, reading. In fact, all the things that make me feel guilty because they don’t feel like work. I’d probably still write my minimum number of words each day, but I wouldn’t force them into a shape, wouldn’t force them into each other. I’d allow myself the freedom to innovate and then see what I had to play with. Instead, I forced myself into a strict regime with a clear deadline for the first draft in mind. This had the appearance of being productive and like hard work because I produced a first draft in a few months but, relatively speaking, it was creatively barren. I’m having to give myself the time and space now to let aspects of the novel come to me, when that is how I should have begun. Yet, once again, the writer chastises him or herself for not behaving in a suitably workman like manner. I was wonderfully reassured once to read that Ian McEwan begins a novel with lots of tidying up, constantly loading and unloading the dishwasher. Very little ‘work’ until the ideas have reached such a pitch of tumbling over themselves that he’s gone a little mad and is compelled to sit down and begin. The problem is being disciplined enough to accept the way you work and not to cave into your own expectations or those of others. Secretly you know whether you’re giving yourself time and space to work something out or whether really you’re idling away your hours with daytime television. You know whether you need to sit back and take a break with Jeremy Kyle or whether it’s a poor excuse for research to avoid the plot problem you’ve got yourself into. You just have to be disciplined about it, and that includes taking breaks. It includes the afternoons wandering with your work left on your desk.

I have no doubt that I will read this through again in a few months and disagree with it wholly. Just as I write how I write, I probably also write like this now and refine my process later. That’s one of the problems of the job. And it is a job. You need structure, you need deadlines, you need discipline. You also need to accept that people will sneer about your work ethic in relation to theirs, even if you know full well that your job never stops. You’re always on duty and your boss always knows when you’re not working as hard as you could. That’s tiring and why you also need to be kind to yourself. As your own boss, praise is hard to come by and the excuses, which are such a part of working life, won’t be believed. Cut yourself some slack. But then maybe none of these apply to you – because you write how you write. The rules are unique to you and they keep changing. Be open minded and remember that all of this can only ever apply if and when you’re committing words to paper. Thank you Michèle for teaching me the only real lesson a writer can or should be taught.

A pint for the ghost

Poet and Pen Pusher contributor Helen Mort on the individuality of poets, her prize-winning poem ‘Deer’ and her new pamphlet and show ‘a pint for the ghost’.

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to speak at an ‘empowering women’ event at a Cambridge College (for the sake of argument, let’s call it Oldham). The thought of inflicting my inane ramblings on a public audience makes me want to reach for my hip flask at the best of times. All the same, I braced myself, took a gulp of Ardbeg and said yes. I started to get a sinking feeling shortly afterwards when I saw the posters: a large picture of my face was emblazoned next to a list of all the ills suffered by women worldwide. It reminded me of a ‘WANTED’ notice.

A fortnight later, as I perched on a sofa in the dark hall, relieved to have survived my talk and poetry reading without being pelted with rotten fruit or homemade WMDs, a young anthropologist who was dominating the Q & A session afterwards did nothing to dispel this impression of anxiety. What relevance did my poems have to Andean villagers? What could they say to victims of genital mutilation? How could somebody who had been enslaved hope to understand them?

I found myself closing my eyes and thinking of Auden: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. Or rather, its relationship with the political is an ambiguous and fluid one. Throughout my speech on what it is to be a female writer, I’d argued that, though all poetry is necessarily informed by the poet’s experiences and background, great poetry aspires to a kind of anonymity as well as a kind of universality. The writer should always be secondary to the writing.

That’s the reason I’ve always been drawn towards the pleasing anonymity of competitions, and I was delighted to find out recently that my poem ‘Deer’ had won the Norwich Café Writers’ Prize, judged by George Szirtes

But perhaps there’s no such thing as a truly ‘anonymous’ poem. As we write, we give ourselves away constantly. The more we restrict ourselves, the more our individuality tends to force its way through. But there’s something appealing about submitting work without a name – I always used to enjoy it when The North printed a list of contributors in the back of the issue, but refrained from putting names next to poems.

There’s certainly something that makes me feel uncomfortable about being asked to speak as a ‘female poet’ (or a ‘young poet’ for that matter) rather than as somebody who happens to produce poetry. When I write, gender isn’t at the front of my mind, even if it comes through in the writing process. The poems I chose to read at my ill-fated talk were mostly from my new pamphlet ‘a pint for the ghost’, inspired by South Yorkshire myth and legend. As I recited them, I heard each word thud on the tasteful, wooden floor like a lead balloon. Their concerns are certainly not stereotypically ‘female’; it’s a collection full of smoky pubs, ex-miners and steelworkers, Friday night chip shops. In that sense, it doesn’t reclaim some notion of female identity in the way the organisers perhaps hoped I would. But who’s to say what the scope of our writing should be? Experience should be an enabling, not a limiting factor. A poem should be able to say something more universal to its audience, it doesn’t depend entirely on its context.

So I was pleased to retreat from the College (dishevelled, bored of the sound of my own voice, clutching a chocolate sponge and bottle of Chardonnay) and learn that ‘a pint for the ghost’ is the Poetry Book Society’s pamphlet choice for Spring 2010. ‘A Pint For The Ghost’ is also a show that will be touring next autumn (with a few early performances, including the wonderful London Word Festival in March 2010) and you can find out more about it by following my blog. I’d like to say a massive thank you to everyone who has supported the project so far, particularly to my hard-working editor, Les at tall-lighthouse, who has the patience of a saint and the coffee making skills of a barista.

I think these two recent pieces of good news are an omen. In fact, if I crane my neck slightly, I think hear my dad sending me a message through the oracle, like an ageing Lancashire fortune cookie: ‘Stick to t’ day job, lass. Don’t go talking crap in Colleges.’


by Helen Mort

The deer my mother swears to God we never saw,
the ones who stepped between the trees
on pound-coin coloured hooves,
I brought them up each teatime in the holidays

and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters that we waited for
at Ullapool, more graceful than the kingfisher
that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor.

Then five years on, in the same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my mother at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden’s edge.

From where she stood, I saw them stealing
through the pines, and they must have been closer
than before, because I have no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur

their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.

Lyrically Minded…

Gift Horse

Gift Horse recording in Wales

Poet and Pen Pusher contributor Alex Fry considers the art of lyric writing, and what he’s learnt by writing lyrics for his band, Gift Horse

I was beginning to tentatively write lyrics with an old school friend Rob during a lull in one of his own projects. It started off as a bit of fun – belting out songs on his old Atari – but we both soon got completely lost in it. Having written prose and poetry for a while, I saw that this was a way into something I had admired from a distance. I had always had a strong feeling for music but had been the child who mimed recorder furtively at the back of the class; I couldn’t play a thing.
I have developed a working process over time: I tend to make a loop of a section I’m writing to and then just wait for some words to form in my mind. Often I don’t know what I’m going to write about until the first lines are on the page; sometimes a rough melody will take shape and something will emerge out of those sounds.
It took me a long time to accept that lyrics usually have to be simpler than poetry, and that some words just don’t sound right in a song. In earlier tracks I would write huge swathes, which looked more like prose, but by working with the other musicians I learnt to tailor the words more to the melody, also to pare it down conceptually and let the music do the talking. After a while I found that simplicity could be a strength.
Gaps in intelligibility between words and sentences can create new imagery and new meanings. In a way the things not said or the running together of disparate themes can compensate for the restriction of having to get something across in a very limited number of syllables. Music can also really electrify language that on the page seems fairly colourless – I still don’t fully understand how or why this works.
Our song ‘Lantern’ is a classic example. If you look at this early version it bears little resemblance to the final lyrics (thank God)…
First draught:

drop down over the Westway
October sun filtered in dirty glass and memory

slip through tree lined avenues of Lancaster gate
Every white house a invitation with no date

creep out to Hillingdon

Friday dark falling across each car

hopeful dark hiding each minds bright spark

i can’t get you off my mind
you have been so hard to find

huddled in a motorway cafe
drinking cheap coffee, looking at naked girls in a magazine

Lost and lonely at midnight
being lost never felt so right

Screaming over the foggy lanes
Oak and rubber singing in Welsh light

put the cold key in the cold lock
strike a match and reveal a life never lived but hot to the touch

i can’t get you off my mind
you have been so hard to find

Final version:

Drop down
Over the brow

October sun filtered in
Dirty glass and melody

Her breath lit up
In the haze of the squall

Her picture burned
At the back of the draw

Lost and lonely at midnight
Losing never felt so right

Lantern on the fourth floor
Tracing the wonder of it all
Lantern on the water
Blinking a secret call

Shuffle down
Her street, that house, her mouth

You hid it for her, the face

The Face Erased
Re-drawn again, and again

The Face Erased
Re-drawn again, and again

Lost and lonely at midnight
Losing never felt so right

Lantern on the fourth floor
Tracing the wonder of it all
Lantern on the water
Blinking a secret call
Lantern on the water
Revealed, then forever withdrawn

I think often what I do is to obscure the original sentiments in a sort of linguistic fogging of the glass. Often things I’ve been struggling to say will emerge after several versions. The chorus of ‘Lantern’ was written half an hour before it was recorded – there’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind!
Our singer Amy and I have an ongoing joke about what you can get away with lyrically. She takes issue with some of the more obscure material I have written. God knows I’ve made her sing some strange lines! Nevertheless it is interesting to see how far you can push it. In the song ‘Nothing I Guess’ there is a spoken section, which seemingly has very little relation to the rest of the words. However I think it works because it’s really integrated sonically with the music so it becomes more like a texture. There is also a sense of narrative but it’s ambiguous and that keeps me intrigued.
We began an album in February 2008, which we are just finishing. Having driven a truckload of equipment to a cottage in Wales, we spent ten days doing initial recordings of the amassed collection of songs. It was an amazing experience and I got to work with some great people. I think we all learnt a huge amount from it, but most of all we had a really good time. We have had some real highs over the last two years when things have gone well, but we’ve also had some huge rows and big doubts about our ability to finish the work. But now it’s almost done I think the result is far more interesting than we could have hoped for.
For me it all comes down to that amazing intersection between language and music. Music is a language that I’ve never fully understood, but speaks to me so strongly I feel compelled to pursue it, wherever it leads.

Alexander McCall Smith and a good cuppa

Meant to blog at the time, but completely forgot. So apologies for being a little late with the news.

I recently went to a breakfast at Racine to launch a new tea, ‘Lost Malawi’, by Rare Tea Company.

Henrietta Lovell, the ‘tea lady’ behind the company, is an all-round good egg, doing great work to ensure that growers get a fair wage and consumers get a damn good cuppa.

The interest for Pen Pusher readers is that Lost Malawi has been named by Alexander McCall Smith, the blockbuster novelist behind The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and dozens of other books (he writes four to five a year – horrifying news for anyone with writer’s block!). What’s more, he’s written a set of exclusive short stories to go inside the tin. ‘He Loved The View’ is my favourite, although all of them show that gently lilting prose that makes reading McCall Smith’s work such a calming experience. Rather like a good cup of tea, in fact.

Cheating heart

Today, I cheated on my library.

Over the last few months, I’ve taken to spending Monday morning out of the house, reading the papers and catching up with emails and other admin and so on. Initially, I headed for a coffee shop, until it dawned on me that all those ristrettos were adding up. Although I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of knocking back hot black coffee and feverishly scribbling notes on a sachet of sugar à la Ernest Hemingway (until 10am, anyway), the reality of my ever-so-romantic life means that I can’t justify the expense of a freshly roasted fairtrade caffeine hit every hour (the interval I deemed seemly to justify my seat). So I began going to the local library instead. Not only do they have more newspapers, but there are heaps of books and magazines as well, and very few people talking about their ‘mad’ Saturday nights. Best of all, it’s free.

Last week, however, I strayed. I needed to do some research for a feature, and I’d heard that the Guildhall library boasted a fabulous collection of cookery books. I trundled down there, and spent a happy few hours calling various decidedly foxed editions of Hannah Glasse’s 18th-century masterwork, The Arte of Cookery made Plain & Easy up from the stacks. But a few of the newer titles were listed as on shelf at the Barbican library, ten minutes away.

Any excuse to go over to that wonderfully optimistic village in the sky, even when the wind is tearing through its tower blocks – and since that fateful morning, I have one more. The Barbican library is fabulous. I’m afraid it knocks all the offerings near me for six – newspapers on wooden frames so no one can nick Media Guardian and deprive me of the job of my dreams, books on everything from rude French slang to the cookery of Gascony (both of which now sit before me, along with a collection of Patricia Highsmith’s short stories), and a wonderfully cosy, cave-like 1960’s interior which encourages the browser to take a seat, and make a more informed choice.

I’m sorry, Islington libraries. You have your own special place in my heart, but your strip lighting is too harsh, and you don’t stock Decanter magazine. I have been forced to play away. I am now the proud owner of a City of London library card. I can only hope that in time you will see past your differences, and can live together happily in my wallet for many years to come.

Mike Figgis talks to Pen Pusher…

Mike Figgis in his studio

Photo by Nick Scott:

If there’s one thing that really gets Mike Figgis going, it’s talking about cameras. As readers of his guide to digital film-making will know, he’s an authority on the latest innovations in the field, and he’s not shy of using them in his work.

When Pen Pusher visited Figgis in his studio to interview him for the latest issue, the evidence of his passion was everywhere. There were stills photos from various productions on the bare brick walls, as well as a giant print of Kate Moss from the recent Agent Provocateur campaign (shot by Figgis on a night-vision camera). There’s even Fig Rig – his gizmo for stabilizing handheld cameras – casually thrown on the sofa.

He said he’d been taking photos on the sets of his films for many years now, although he was always mindful of the adage: “If your stills photographer is getting good pictures, your cameraman is in the wrong place.”

Before interviewing Figgis, I didn’t realize quite how much of an innovator he’s been. He’s experimented with split-screen to show one event (the rape in Miss Julie) from two perspectives; shot long continuous takes (in TimeCode); allowed his actors to improvise using a script that looked more like a musical score (TimeCode again); and mixed up the sequencing of scenes (in pretty much everything, including ‘mainstream’ works such as Internal Affairs and Leaving Las Vegas).

At the heart of all this is Figgis’s love of telling stories – a deep, instinctual affinity with drama, and its ability to reflect and re-imagine the real world. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, he doesn’t have a lot of time for screenwriting gurus, with their insistence on sticking rigidly to three-act structure and well-worn character archetypes. In fact, he doesn’t have a lot of time for the whole film industry, where the money men and the ‘talent’ seemed locked in a perpetual struggle for control. ‘I love the quality of film – I just don’t like what it stands for,’ Figgis says. ‘If your budget goes up, there’s a different mentality to how you shoot the film.’

Surprisingly for someone who’s spent much of the last two decades making 90-minute features, he revealed that he considers TV shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire, to be more successful forms of story-telling than many recent films. ‘The ongoing quality of [those shows] is like a complex novel,’ he says.

In the course of our chat, we also covered the rituals of writing (he always cleans his house from top to bottom before starting a screenplay) the best cheap cameras for amateur film-makers and why ‘all films are science fiction’…

To read all about it – and find out which of Figgis’s film ‘makes him cringe the least’ – see the next issue of Pen Pusher.