‘We read on because we like the world we are in,’ says novelist Christopher Wakling, tutor on Curtis Brown Creative’s Six-Month Creative-Writing Course. ‘That world derives from a book’s sensibility, a nebulous combination of voice, character, and also the physical landscape within which the action takes place.’
‘This week, Chris asked the students on the Curtis Brown Creative course to focus on landscape in the novels they’re currently writing. He asked them to kill generic, flat description and replace it with specific, sensory detail; homing in on the elements most important for character and story. Here are four examples of what they came up with’:
Southport: northern England’s very own knock-off Babylon. Something stuck about it, if not quite stuck-up; its faded grandeur all fur coat and no knickers. From Ted’s window – bored into a whitewashed residential block on the seafront – the Funland amusement arcade winks like a migraine. Bleeps and tinkling sounds lift off its machines, along with the screech of dodgems and the sizzle of chip fat and fried onions. Further down, past the grotty Victoria Leisure Club, the Genting Casino noses out of the ground like an unearthed diamond (a fake, of course). Its patrons – bleary insomniacs, old card sharps and full-time no-hopers – are gum-stuck to the pavements, calming their nerves with a fag. Above it all, above the driftwood and dirty nappies beached on the shore, and the grey strip of sea stretching up to Liverpool, the Maritime Bridge soars like a plucked white fishbone, a symbol of everything caught in Southport’s net: another willing captive in its big fat avalanche of fun.
History can rise up from these stones and this glass: the knot garden is a reconstructed church and a moment of Blitzkrieg; it is simultaneously a row of pre-war shops and a confusion of medieval settlements and back and back, until it is the first land, mammoths grazing next to the river. It coheres, thinks Murphy. The Gin Craze is still a reality under the Balbek spire of St George’s Bloomsbury, a Hogarth painting is passing the boasts of the Apple store. The corpse-pits still fester where Old Street meets Goswell Road, these accountants which rush and jostle ought to hold their noses. It isn’t particularly chaotic. We are justified in having a name for it, two syllables full of meaning: London.
Welcome to Penrith. Look around. It’s Tuesday, and Frank is on his way to the shop.
He starts work at seven. In the thin light of dawn, he notices that the streets are wider than their contents merit; in his mind he calls them ‘boulevards’, to capture their roomy, unhurried sweep. They have been painted over the town with a broad brush held by a lazy artist with no direction in his soul. The roads do not flatten the earth, but wrap themselves around its surface and contentedly undulate. Around here, the earth is rather more determined than anything man has made.
At lunchtime, Frank takes a sandwich to eat in the graveyard outside St Andrew’s church. He sits in the long grass and swats at gnats and horseflies as he chews. The air smells of farms which surround the town like a moat, keeping the rest of the world at arm’s length.
Then at half past six, when the shop is shut and the surfaces wiped and the cleavers are docile in their wooden blocks, Frank wanders home. The sun is low, orange; it flatters the town and its glorious multicolour. The rows of buildings are mostly houses, built for rag dolls and scarecrows. Frank notices that no two have the same face, yet all are familiar to him. There’s the lemon-yellow one with cornflower-blue window frames; the mint-green one with a gloss navy front door; the pink one with the red tile roof; the grey pebbledash one, reflecting the light off its prickly skin. His own home is a mud-brown end-of-terrace with a black door and a slate roof which always looks wet. Its neighbour is white, and reminds Frank of the seaside.
The scene is set. The sky is a dense, unfathomable blue pressing itself upon the 12 pitched roofs of Penny Close, slipping under loose tiles, rubbing beween the branches of the elm trees. White light hammers a dozen sets of double-glazing, bounces from the wing mirror of a Ford Cortina and skitters across the grooves of a garage door. The tarmac horseshoe that swings around the close is suddenly mysterious, flecked with silver, a sparkling onyx river. A breeze stirs the hexagon of laundry hanging in a back garden, a frilly pillow case twists flirtatiously back and forth. It is too hot for Penny Close, it is too much this heat, certain people have started to complain. Geraniums are gasping in their pots, a thrush with all the song sucked out of it loiters in the shadow of a drooping fuchsia bush. Meanwhile the sun sears through net curtains that were once white and prowls through houses like an intruder, uncovering an archive of benign neglect: lacy cobwebs punctuated with the plump black bodies of spiders, the shroud of dust over unloved ornaments relegated to the top of a cabinet, the decade-old blood stain on a hallway carpet which usually goes unnoticed.
A lawnmower purrs. Music trickles from radios on kitchen windowsills. And the tchik-tchik-tchik of the water sprinkler in the back garden of the house at Number Four where a girl with hair the colour of rust and a smattering of freckles that she has recently decided she hates practises cartwheels through the glistening arc of water with her best friend, Sharon. The red-haired girl is me; my name is Pippa, but everyone calls me Pip. My mother appears in the doorway wearing an apron; I can hear the drone of the oven from the kitchen behind her, her hair is damp and starting to curl from the heat – it is lighter than mine, the shade of the palest autumn leaves, although she tells me it has faded over time and this gives me hope for my own. She holds out two cherry icepops which Sharon and I love because if you suck them in the right way it looks as if you’re wearing lipstick. We are 11 years old and we believe we know everything about each other.
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