Mystery in everyday objects

‘The surest and quickest way for us to arouse the sense of wonder is to stare unafraid at a single object.’ Cesare Pavese wrote those words in Dialogues with Leucò, one of two quotations that preface Lara Pawson’s deceptively slim third book, Spent Light. When her dog starts killing squirrels, Pawson cooks them, acquiringa Whitby Wild Cat skinning knife Pawson takes the Italian writer at his word, turning to a toaster for inspiration. The electrical appliance, which appears two pages in, is a gift from a neighbour, Reg, after his wife dies. Pawson uses it to launch a deeply empathetic piece of writing exploring the brutality of the world in

Musings in lockdown: The Vulnerables, by Sigrid Nunez, reviewed

The Vulnerables represents Sigrid Nunez’s foray into pandemic literature, a genre we can only expect to see grow in the coming years. The topic is handled with a level of absurdity, making elements of the story eerily (and sometimes traumatically) recognisable. Nunez’s musings on how writing can represent the strangeness of life are never more poignant than when she reflects on the ‘uncertain spring’ of 2020. You’d think she was inventing it if you hadn’t been there yourself. The question of how to write when life is stranger than fiction is at the centre of the book. ‘More and more, fictional story-telling is coming across as beside the point,’ she

The simplicity and joy of recorded conversations

Recently I stumbled across a file of conversations I’d recorded with my seven-year-old son Frank back when he was four. Topics include his travels through wormholes, why he finds planet Earth ‘boring’, the tragic story of how his ‘first family’ died and how he got his ‘laser eyes’. It was only by listening to these voice notes three years later that I understood just how precious audio recordings are, and also how under-used. The conversations I taped illustrate the nuances of Frank’s four-year-old self more vividly than any photo or video could. Anyone attempting to write fiction should take note of the power of audio – conversation and voice are

What should we put in our time capsule of the plague year?

The ladies of my church knitting circle (note, we are open to those who identify ‘-otherly’, and to practitioners of diverse crafts) are an enterprising bunch, and no techno slouches either. Unbowed by Covid, we have continued to meet via Zoom, bringing along our own tea, cake and creative endeavours. We love a project, and we now have one: a time capsule of the plague year. This idea is so far proving to be more a feasibility study than a done deal. There are so many decisions to make. What size should the capsule be? Where will it be stored? When will it be reopened, and by whom? And what

The wonderful ghosts of Christmas past

The past shifts about like clouds, now dense, now parting for a memory to shine out, perhaps randomly, but bright as the sun. Here is the Sheffield Christmas when I was four and slept in Great-Aunt Florence’s room, on an eiderdown beside her bed, in the terraced house that smelled of coal smoke — the Christmas of worrying about how dirty Santa must get, going up and down the sooty chimneys. Home was Scarborough: the bracing sea air and howling gales where I missed the coal dust smell, though it brought back the cough I had had since nearly dying of whooping cough, aged two — the cough that has

For a creative writing exercise in lockdown, revisit George Perec

Those who have been on creative writing courses may be familiar with the ‘I remember’ exercise. The two words become a prompt for whatever you recall, and can lead to a fruitful ramble into senses and impressions worth plundering later. It could be useful during a lockdown (‘I remember the water cooler/my girlfriend coming round/trains’) and at any time can evoke feelings of nostalgia. The painter and poet Joe Brainard created the form, and his sequences of recollections snowballed into I Remember (1975), a sensual memoir of his childhood in Oklahoma (‘I remember my first erection’). The wonderful Georges Perec heard about it from a friend. He didn’t read Brainard,