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The views that inspire writers

Do writers really need inspiring landscapes? Or the opposite?

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

Unimaginatively, I usually take the same route for a morning walk when on holiday in Cornwall, over the dunes to Brea Hill, inspiration for Betjeman’s poem ‘Back From Australia’. I know the scenery so well I no longer see it.

But for a change the other day I walked along the other side of the estuary and it was like seeing an entirely new landscape: the gently scalloped sandbanks, the clarity and blueness of the water, the breadth of the sky where it met Pentire Point. There were no clouds, which emphasised the white of the sails, the seagulls, the cabbage butterflies.

Imagine having this as the view from your study, I thought. How inspired you would feel. Hell, even Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, might have managed to cobble something together to commemorate the birth of Prince George after contemplating this vista.

But then I wondered if I was over-romanticising things. Views are fine for artists and poets but surely novelists need something else. Something grittier and less distracting. Julian Barnes can only write when facing a blank wall in his study in north London. Hemingway was the same. He may have liked to write in Key West but he nevertheless stared at an empty wall while he did so, standing up as he typed, to add a little discomfort and energy to his prose. Orwell liked to write from an Islington flat that visitors described as ‘bleak’; that and a ‘primitive’ farmhouse in Jura, which was also bleak, especially in autumn when he went there to write.

Truman Capote liked to stare at the ceiling when he wrote, lying horizontal. Somerset Maugham stared at his bathtaps (while having a contemplative soak). Ideas come to Ian McEwan when he tilts back his chair, puts his feet on the radiator and considers the unromantic view from his window, of the grey and satellite-dish-covered Post Office tower.


Jeffrey Archer, meanwhile, has one of the finest views in London from his penthouse, overlooking the bridges of the Thames and the mellow stone of the Palace of Westminster. I’m just saying.

In an interview with Robert McCrum for Radio 4, Martin Amis argued that you need suffering and anxiety before you can write properly. He has a point. A novelist can neither afford to be too comfortable nor too content. Surely one of the reasons people write is to escape into their minds. If they are contemplating a beautiful view, what need have they of escape?

And even poets need more than scenery. Philip Larkin favoured the unprepossessing cityscape of Hull. Andrew Motion has a daily Lemsip to get him in the mood to write, a ‘slightly introverted self-pitying mood that a mild illness can give’. Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ was not exactly the fruit of comfortable living and majestic scenery.

I suspect Wordsworth is to blame for the idea that poets can only do their stuff when contemplating beauty. All that lonely wandering through the Lake District and the Alps. But what inspired him most was extremes of weather, especially storms, and pushing himself to physical limits as he walked by day and slept under the stars by night, breaking human boundaries in order to identify with something other than himself. His own scale beside the mountains filled him with terror, creative terror.

Shelley went further, believing you have to give into madness and irrationality before you can write. And this chimes with what the ancient Greeks believed. For them, inspiration came from the muses (and they should know because they came up with the term ‘inspiration’, which means ‘breathed upon’). The Greeks believed that when the muses breathed upon you you would go into a divine frenzy or poetic madness. So watch out.

A more prosaic truth is that inspiration often comes from reading. This might extend to borrowing metaphors as an ‘homage’. Ian McEwan once told me that it came as a revelation to him that even John Updike, his hero, did this. When McEwan was mulling over a particularly subtle phrase that Updike used — ‘A knight’s move of consciousness’ — he realised that he had read it before in a novel by Nabokov. He then discovered that Nabokov had, in his turn, ‘borrowed’ it from the psychiatrist Heinrich Klüver.

Perhaps we should be less precious about the creative process, then. As the artist Chuck Close put it: ‘Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.’

And perhaps if your study did have that view over the estuary to Brea Hill, you would soon get used to it and no longer notice it. Then you could get to work.

Nigel Farndale’s new novel is The Road Between Us.


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