Finding good work

24 01 2013

bus stop sign

One of the first paid jobs I had was collecting eggs at a chicken farm. I was thrilled to be offered this job, and at 50 pence an hour it was, at the time, pretty good money. I think I lasted a summer. The chicken sheds filled with rust-coloured birds that viciously guarded their eggs were intimidating. When you stepped inside the vast hangar, dust swirling like sleet in the light, you had to clap your hands to move the hens away from their precious hordes. More often than not, they stayed put, when this happened, and I recall this being vividly demonstrated, you had to go in and fling them off the nest boxes.

The technique required for dethroning a chicken required you to grab one of its wings at the joint and hurl the bird into the centre of the shed with one hand while you reached into the box with the other for the egg treasure. I watched farm workers, young and old, retrieve dozens of eggs with effortless ease. They had sorted their trophies into trays of different sizes while I was still scuttling my way down one side of the shed with my scarf across my mouth and my eyes half-closed against what I was certain would be a full-blooded chicken face fight.

The hens sensed my ineptitude and each time I reached gingerly into one of their boxes, with my teeth gritted, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t get attacked, they went for me. Every time.  I wore two jumpers and a coat, but always my arm was pecked and by the time I got home the marks had become horrible red welts.

Terrifying as the sheds were, they were nothing compared to the battery cages where three or four miserable white birds were crammed into wire spaces no bigger than a hamster cage. Nearly all these birds were raw bald and instead of the eager brightness belonging to the shed birds their eyes had a desperate kind of shine. They smelled of sick. Come to think of it, the whole place smelled of sick, like a hospital ward during an epidemic. That combined with the memory of the soft feel of the eggs that had developed a pouch instead of a shell still makes my stomach turn.

I tried to remain stoic and practical – at thirteen I needed the pocket money – but the sheer grimness of this job gave me bad dreams and made me panic at the thought of the throat-closing stuffiness of the sheds. Once I realised that I actually hated this job, I never went back.

I’ve had other jobs since that have infected my dreams and made me ill. I left a well-paid job that made me feel I was being sucked down and under a lukewarm pond never to be seen again. I rejected full-time permanent work at an office that had employed me part-time as a freelance. I walked out of another office and well-paid position that I might have kept had I enlisted support, but I was sick of living the job that was making me sick.

Recently, the idea of healthy work has been cropping up in conversations with people I care about. It has become a bit of a theme and led me to read again David Whyte’s wonderful study of work and identity: Crossing the Unknown Sea.

Whyte, who left the corporate world to pursue poetry full-time, is eloquent on why going against oneself in one’s choice of work is the worst kind of self-sabotage. We come awake, he says, when we find work that is our own; we come alive when we find the thing to which we can give our full potential. Whyte recalls a late-night conversation over a bottle of wine with his friend, a monk he calls Brother David. The monk listens patiently to Whyte’s own story of unwholesome, soul-sapping, weary work and advises him: ‘You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?’

Whyte rather ‘woodenly’ asks his friend what the answer is and receives this reply: ‘The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.’

That evening is the beginning of a sea change for Whyte who ends up redesigning his job and then following his dream of becoming a poet. He is now in demand as a poet and speaker all over the world.

His message is really quite simple, but so difficult to put into practice because it requires a leap of faith. To work with all of your heart is to work with courage, and to work with courage is to come alive. Anything less is going to make us sicken for what we truly need.

In many ways my entire working life has been a quest to avoid exhaustion and to find work that is quite literally good for my heart. I’m still making mistakes and still getting into a panic sometimes when I’m faced with too many fierce chickens guarding their little boxes, but I’m learning to let them get on with it and find my own way out.

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Telling the Truth

17 01 2013

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I’m grateful to the hardy souls among you who braved the January chills to come and listen to my talk at Exeter Library the other evening. Thank you. We had such a lively debate and it’s always great to connect with readers. For those who couldn’t make it, here’s an edited version of the talk:

One of the questions that preoccupies me as a writer is: how far should the author go in revealing what they know?

This question accompanied me all the way through the research and writing of two novels for John Murray: Hotel Juliet and The Beautiful Truth. At various points along the way, I addressed the question: how much do I tell the reader and the second question: can the reader take it?

I have always used actual events in my work and I use them unfiltered. It feels natural, but also audacious. I enjoy the challenge of creating fiction out of stuff that happens. To take the raw material of life and transform it requires me to work at the very edge of my capacity. Once I’ve set up a framework, I write into another truth. It takes work to find this other, hidden truth, a truth that is not the same as actual events, but feels more authentic. There is an internal logic to fiction that I can only grasp when I’m working within it. So I write from the inside out. I go in to try to work out what I have to say.

When I knew that I was going to be ‘doing’ a book about Poland, I knew that I would be using real events. The Second World War ended 68 years ago. There are still people alive who lived through the war in Poland and I wanted to be faithful to an experience that shaped not only the Polish nation but Europe itself. All of European identity can be traced back to the war. All of us in Europe are in a sense rooted in this war.

I spent the best part of a year reading about Poland. My father was Polish but he never spoke to his four children about his country. In fact, the happiest day of his life was when he became a British citizen. I can still remember him sitting in a chair watching his favourite programme Planet of the Apes with the black and gold embossed passport on the arm of the chair next to him, almost as if he were worried that someone would snatch it away.

As I grew older I wondered why my father was not proud of Poland, why didn’t he share stories of growing up? Why was Poland somehow a forbidden topic?  I realised as I read more about Poland how the country had been mauled throughout history. There had been several attempts to obliterate it as a nation and for a period of one hundred years it had ceased to exist. Poland’s geography made it a target, a jewel to be plucked and plundered. One historian offers an image of a kitten being torn limb from limb by a pair of salivating dogs. The Germans had been defeated only to be replaced by a stultifying and sinister Soviet regime. There wasn’t much of Poland left anymore to fight over. No wonder my father did not want to share his memories.

My research into war-time Poland made for uncomfortable reading. I was stunned by what I read. Often I simply sat and cried. There seemed no other response to the scale of such loss. How comfortable my Britishness seemed in comparison. My Britishness was never something that I was going to have to fight for. I was never going to arm myself with home-made grenades and fight off oppressors. I was never going to have to face near starvation for the right to live in my own country. I was never going to witness my people being executed purely because they were British nationals. I was never going to face the question of whether I would be prepared to die to defend my own country.

Millions of Poles sacrificed their lives. The scale of death in the concentration camps is well documented. What is less well-documented is that more than six million Polish citizens, eighty per cent of the population living in cities, died under the Nazi occupation. Four hundred thousand people died within Warsaw alone. Knowing he was facing defeat, Hitler ordered the city to be razed without trace. Flame-throwers, bulldozers and dynamite teams set to work. Street by street, literally building by building the city and its inhabitants were reduced to ashes.

When the Soviet Army finally advanced on the ruins of Warsaw on 17th January 1945, they found a smoking moonscape. Ninety three per cent of all buildings were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. According to the historian Norman Davies ‘the destruction was on a par with that of Hiroshima, Leningrad or Dresden. A city of 1.2 million no longer contained a single living soul.’

When I began to write my first draft, it was with a sober feeling that I needed to acknowledge what I discovered. As I wrote, I realised that I was working on a story that required me to pay precise attention to the details. It felt wrong to try to fudge things, almost a form of dishonour. I worked intensely. I had maps spread out on the floor and spent weeks tracing my way through forests, trying to find a way through. Days of pacing up and down, leaping back to the laptop when I realised I didn’t know what colour of uniform the Russians wore, or whether they smoked cigarettes on duty (they didn’t)or what a Russian might sound like who was trying to speak Polish. There was so much I didn’t know.

I could have spent ten years on this novel and not come anywhere near close to what I was trying to bring forth. The material I read about the Warsaw rising drove me to the laptop. My own petty daily anxieties were an irrelevance, an irritation. I was so gripped by what I found out, so utterly absorbed in it, I had to try to find a way to bring it to life through characters that needed to be large enough to carry it off.

What I wanted was a story that was as electrifying as the material I was reading. I made many wrong turns. The trouble with writing fiction set in wartime is that I already had so many imaginative associations from film and novels. I knew I had to be careful not to allow these impressions to come to the surface and cloud my judgement. I knew that I just had to concentrate on the facts.

Once I began to focus more closely on the research material, it set up a train of ideas that tumbled out so quickly I had to rush to keep up. It felt like opening a vein. It was a strange and utterly exhilarating time. When I emerged, I felt as if I had been away to war. I remember finishing the novel at Easter and driving across Shaldon Bridge and just feeling amazed that the buildings were intact. There was no rubble, no white dust. How perfect and beautiful everything seemed. It made me appreciate what a truly astonishing thing it is to live in a country completely at peace. 





Walking into a New Year

2 01 2013

Walking into a New Year

After lunch yesterday my friends and I went for a walk. We needed somewhere flat so as not to aggravate my quietly mending knee, and so we choose our closest stretch of sandy beach. Driving along the sea front it was tempting to get annoyed. Everyone in East Devon, it seemed, had stolen our brilliant idea of marking the first day of the brand new year by taking their dogs out for a walk along Exmouth sands.

Everyone. All right, a few people might have gone to Sidmouth instead.

It is curious to see a mass of people out and about and looking relaxed. Often when we encounter people in swathes like this, we close down, hunch into ourselves and try to avoid any form of contact that might tax our reserves of tolerance for those who are not us. Rare are the times when we simply enjoy watching each other.

Shortly after we arrived, a group of young people stripped off their clothes and dived into the cold sea. They held up their arms and laughed as the cold tongue of foamy pink sea licked their white bodies. A few people commented that the swimmers were off their heads, but despite the scoffing there was grudging respect for these human seals. The swimmers and the dogs together did look as if they were having the best time.

There is not an adequate English equivalent for the French word élan. Impetuosity, dash or style doesn’t quite convey the feeling of lightness in spirit, of having fun in a playful way that lifts those who watch. Élan is very different to merely mucking about or showing off. It’s a generous impulse.

Watching others let down their guard is entertaining. I can’t have been the only person on the beach who was having her icy New Year’s Swim snug in the warm changing room of the imagination. Thanks to the swimmers, we didn’t have to strip off and get in. We shivered vicariously.

It strikes me now, though, that too much watching others from the shore could become a habit. Not dipping our toes in the water because others have already done it for the rest of us is the very opposite of living with élan.

In this coming year, I want to live with more impulsion, more – I love this word – ardour. A lot less holding back.

Happy New Year.