Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Coming out of the comfort zone

After I made a plea the other day for literary antidotes to my feeling that London is depressing, Paul over at Paul’s Writing Blog sent me a link to The City is Mine, an article in the Guardian by Kate Pullinger who is described as ‘an inveterate nightwalker’. She was actually responding to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s admission that she would not walk the streets of London alone at night, but her lyrical paean of praise to the city streets at night did act as a corrective to my feeling that London streets are dismal places.
Here are some extracts from the article.

'Crossing Lambeth Bridge on foot at 5am provoked in me a kind of epiphany, an ecstatic communion with the city and its only-just-buried layers of history. At night it's as though the city's history comes alive, bubbling up from where it lies dormant beneath the tarmac: when the crowds are gone, modernity slips away, and the city feels ancient and unruly. How could anyone not love London late at night, or early in the morning? How could the wide black Thames with the city reflected upon it not remind you of everything that is most desirable and glamorous in life?'

Which reminded me so much of William Wordsworth’s Upon Westminster Bridge, written over two hundred years ago:
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

But it’s not just what she sees, but how the city makes her feel that makes Kate Pullinger an enthusiast for nightwalking in the city.

Just before Christmas I walked home by myself from a party... When I got outside the night was foggy and the street lamps glowed through the freezing mist; a black taxi passed with its yellow light blazing, the low purring sound of its diesel engine reassuring…. when I look up from the pavement and see the sparkling lights, I hear the night music; could it be that I am who I always wanted to be, and the city at night belongs to me?

I’m not accustomed to walking the streets of any city at night - it just isn’t part of my life. But despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I am scared of the dark, some of my most vivid memories from childhood and adolescence are of night-time. In the winter on our dairy farm there was always the ritual of ‘the last feed’ – going out to the cubicle sheds where our cows were housed and spreading the contents of three or four bales of hay into the feeding troughs. We would sit there, the four of us and look at each other. ‘Who’s doing the last feed?’ It wasn’t horribly unpleasant but it did involve leaving the fireside, putting on your wellies and coat and making sure your baler-twine-cutting penknife was in the pocket. Then it would be out into the cold. Given that this was West Wales it was usually windy and sometimes wet and those were the nights when nobody wanted to stagger out into the weather. And the cows, being sensible creatures, probably weren’t all that interested in leaving the warm sheds to come and stand in the rain and eat wet hay.
But,occasionally, there were cloudless, moon- or star-lit nights when it was just astonishing to be out, when the cold air felt invigorating after the sleepy fug of the sitting room, when the stars were so clear and bright that a telescope seemed superfluous and fear of the dark irrelevant as there was very little dark to be had.

And these memories, coupled with Kate’s article, remind me that it doesn’t do, as a writer or simply as a human being, to become set in my ways. If I want to grow and develop as a writer I need to feed my imagination and that means doing things which are out of the ordinary run of things, even things that I find a little scary. Because if I don’t keep having new experiences, if I don’t surprise myself, delight myself, scare myself or put myself in situations where I can feel a sense of awe and wonder once in a while, my imagination will atrophy.

I’m not necessarily sure about walking around London at the dead of night – I don’t live there and can’t afford to rent a hotel room for the night just to have somewhere to toddle back to at three thirty in the morning or whenever my body stops being prepared to put one foot in front of another – but doing things which our fearful, risk-averse society would tut and purse its lips about should definitely be on my agenda.

Stop Press: Just got the first of the BBC Radio Kent Writers' Room story threads through. And it's truly wonderful! Pat, in the vague hope that you might be reading this, ten out of ten for imagination - even your outline brought a lump to my throat...

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