How the New Year Began

I spent a fair bit of yesterday watching the Making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (posted below) a conversation between Hilary Mantel and Fay Weldon (also posted below), a short interview with Hilary Mantel and the Guardian newspaper on Wolf Hall, and writing some text for my forthcoming work site. As I watched the various videos, I transcribed portions of conversation that struck me as immediately relevant to my current writing, or how to think about it, for myself but perhaps when talking with other writers as well. Of everything I listened to, the three things that stay with me most strongly are Hilary Mantel’s comment on painting a writer’s portrait,  her goal to capture Cromwell’s thought flow in every scene of Wolf Hall, and Paul McCartney’s desire for Sgt. Pepper’s to represent the very best of their [the Beatles’] thinking at that time.


Hilary Mantel in conversation with Fay Weldon.


On the difficulty of capturing the essence of a writer in a portrait painting.

I was saying to him [the painter], being commissioned to paint a writer was the hardest thing of all. Because, to state the obvious, nothing of what we do shows on the surface. Nothing of what we are is there to be seen. And you know this because, in films where writers are part of the story, you always see the excruciating difficulty of portraying them. And writers are always shown despairing, tearing their hair, ripping up their work, and, in extremity, throwing their typewriter out of the window. And so they’re shown not writing. But the act of writing itself: what’s to see? You know, someone with a grim expression, scratching away. And I said to the painter, photographers come, and sometimes they are there all day, and they take scores of photographs, and you think–I think–“What do you want? Tell me what you want and I’ll try to give it to you.” But there is a real paradox here. You’re constantly being looked at, but unable to show anything, except on the page. … You can only show people on the page what you are.


I am not a writer who begins at the beginning. Whether I’m writing contemporary fiction or historical fiction, I write scenes, and I amass material, and build up some parts of the book quite intensively, while others remain quite sketchy. And then at quite a late stage I have to stitch it all together. This means that I can never say to my publisher, ‘Well, I am two hundred thousand words in.’—I could offer to weigh it if you like—all I can say is, ‘It needs eighteen months.’ But I could never say, ‘I’m up to this point,’ because I’m always up to six different points, simultaneously. That’s really the only way I know how to do it.


To me, there are two great problems with historical dramas: an old one and a new one. The old one is exposition, characters telling each other what they already know. And it hangs so heavy on historical fiction. And on historical fiction it’s just more obvious when it’s on the screen. And you have to be clever, you have to find indirect and cunning ways of giving the reader, the viewer, indirectly what they need to know as background. But I did say to Peter Kosminsky [director of the forthcoming BBC adaption of Wolf Hall], ‘If you have to have an audience spoon-fed or baffled, which will you take?’ And he said, ‘Baffled,’ which I always vote for. Give people the credit for being able to work things out. If not immediately, then, when they think about it later.

I hope [referring to the BBC production] that we will have no period flummery. And, I hope, none of the second vice, which is something that’s overtaken historical drama very recently, which is empty gorgeousness. … I don’t know if anyone has seen the Borgias. Would anyone admit to having seen the Borgias? Well, you know, I sit before the screen open-mouthed at the effects they make, the beautiful, beautiful pictures, and then you realize that what you are watching is, at best, the equivalent of a comic strip. It is complete nonsense. It looks so beautiful, but it’s too easy.


What I’ve been trying to do is catch the flow of thought, and you see him [Cromwell] manoeuvering for advantage in every situation, every conversation, and you are right there as it happens, moment by moment. This often seems to be missing from the historical novel: the story stays on the surface; it doesn’t try to construct a rounded human being. It’s quite an ambitious agenda when you think you also have to keep the reader very informed of the political world, the world of fact, the world of macro-history.


The Making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

I remember, we walked into an antique shop in Seven Oakes in Kent, and we were looking at what they had there, and John pulled out this thing that he found which was said, ‘The Benefit of Mr. Kite,’ and it was virtually all the lyrics to that song. …. That’s how you do it, you know, you get ideas, you hear people say stuff, or you hear a phrase that sounds good and you write it down and you remember it. – George Harrison (on how John Lennon wrote For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.)


We were changing our method of working at that time. Instead of now looking for catchy singles, catchy singles, catchy singles, it was more like writing your novel. Sgt. Pepper, for me, definitely, it was much more an overall concept, “Wow,” you know? And you can see that in the packaging [the cover art]. Paul McCartney


Cover art in the middle sixties hadn’t really been exploited, up to Pepper. And when the boys decided what they wanted—they wanted, really, to put all of their heroes on the album, in some form or another—and by recruiting Peter Blake, who was an avant-garde artist, again to assemble their ideas and realize them in the same way I was realizing the music, they did, I think, a pretty smart thing. George Martin


I think we thought, ‘We’ll do the very best we can,’ in this very far out new way that we had of thinking. Get it to be something … I still think that is the best philosophy: to really try and please yourself. Paul McCartney



2015: The year we stand on stars


It’s a new year. It’s the year I’ll turn 64. The Beatles’ song has played in my head often these past few months. I think back to when I heard it for the first time. I had just turned sixteen. I was at a party with a boy named Keith I’d had a crush on, for a year or so, and now I was finally going out with him. To be honest, he was a lot less interesting in real life than I had built him up to be in my mind. Isn’t that often the case? And he never appreciated how stunningly my mother dressed me; including the night he took me to the party where we heard Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time. If I was a disappointment to him as well, well, he can write that in his blog. I will say this in his defense: he was very beautiful to look at, and he could play practically any piece of music on the piano that he heard for the first time, even though (if I recall rightly, though I may be wrong in this) he couldn’t read sheet music.

On a side note, my mother had made me a cream-coloured outfit of silk sari fabric embroidered with real gold. It was a two-piece outfit consisting of a pair of “bloomers,” very short, with a pleated frill at their hem, and a sleeveless empire waist top that touched the frill so that it appeared to be part of the top, until you looked closely and saw the bloomers peeking out from beneath. The whole outfit was exquisite, and, these days, looking back at photographs of me around that age I wasn’t far off from exquisite, either–though this was largely because of how my mother dressed me.

Now I’ll be sixty-four in a few months. Lennon and McCartney were in their twenties when they wrote their song. I expect they couldn’t imagine any more than I could back then, turning sixty-four.

I remember at my twenty-first birthday party talking with a client of my mother’s, the travel writer and journalist Barbara Wace, who was sixty-four at the time. Her mother had died recently, she told me, adding, she felt too young to have lost her mother. (I was too young to understand.)

Miss Wace lived at the top of a building on Fleet Street that took many, many steps to reach it. I climbed those many steps at different times, when she invited me for lunch. I didn’t know then how valuable those meetings were. I was still in my lost and confused years (which stretched into my life until only a few years ago). If I had known then that what I really wanted to be was a writer, rather than simply knowing as I had from childhood that I could write, I would have been very attentive to everything Miss Wace told me about life, her writing, and the world at large. And I would have sought her advice. But I didn’t. And, now, here I am, about to turn sixty-four myself in a few months, without it. And without the advice of so many great and legendary people I met, through my parents, through my education, and long after. All I can think of is this:

I will be sixty-four this year, but I stand on stars billions of years old that still illuminate the earth at night. I am, in their eyes, a very young, young ‘un; I am a new arrival in their Nursery.

On the title of this post: the year we stand on stars. It’s adapted from a line of Carly Simon’s Let the River Run. When I was contemplating inspiration for this coming year, I thought of how much I love this song, the hope of possibility in it, and of Emily Dickinson’s poem I Dwell in Possibility. I read the lyrics of the song for the first time today, and knew what this year for me will be:

We the great and small
stand on a star
and blaze a trail of desire
through the dark’ning dawn.

2015: The Year We Stand on Stars

A tribute to my parents



Christie’s invited me to write an introduction to the sale catalogue of my father’s art from my collection, which goes on the block next Tuesday, 18th March; coincidentally, my mother’s centenary birthday.

It was surprisingly easy to write. Although after I had sent in the final draft that would go to the printers I felt highly emotional, and continue to feel as if everything that was kept hidden is finally rising to the surface. For so long, my mother was the invisible person in my father’s history. To know that at last she is visible to the world at large has also made me visible in some strange way, which could not have been predicted beforehand.

The essay, together with a second, poignant essay by biographer and essayist Maria Aurora Couto, who knew my mother, can be found by clicking this link. tribute





Self-doubt Is a Passing Cloud

The first time I confronted the nature of self-doubt to “rid” myself of it, once and for all, was on my first meditation retreat with my teacher in the winter of 1995, in the godforsaken town of Bodhgaya, in the poorest state in India, where the Buddha is said to have awakened under the Bodhi tree. I wanted to understand, in spite of mind blowing experiences of mystical revelation some months earlier, which had convinced me of the nature of Reality, why I continued to suffer the pain of self-doubt. Instead of giving me a solution I could carry around like a comfort blanket, my teacher said, What if you feel doubt the rest of your life?

Although I nodded my head, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. So, instead of letting in what my teacher had said, I continued to put all my energy into overcoming existential and self-doubt, by using my mind to talk myself out of it. It never worked. Except very occasionally as a temporary denial of doubt’s quite real existence.

One day, in 2011, when I was quite ill and couldn’t think clearly enough to read or write, I watched old clips of J.K. Rowling interviews. In her interview with Oprah, she spoke briefly but clearly about believing in her ability to tell a story. And that got me thinking in a completely different direction from the one in which I’d been travelling.

What my teacher had said 16 years earlier came back to me and slowly I began to understand. There would always be a part of me that would doubt. That part of me would never change because that is its nature. Just as it is the nature of a cloud to carry precipitation. At the same time, there would always be a part of me that remains constant and never doubts, because that is its nature. The worst, unimaginable storm clouds will never alter the nature of the sky.

I saw in a fundamental way I could never be the nature of cloud (or self-doubt). For a cloud eventually passes. But Sky, having gone nowhere, remains.

Wide Open Sky

Write the story you really believe in. I really mean really believe in. Not the one you think you should write, or the one you think you would like to write, or the one someone told you would be good to write, or the one that’s currently trending the market. Or any other variable of the above.

Write the story you really, truly, cross your heart and hope to die, believe in. The one you’ve been waiting to read your whole life. The one you would have loved to read at the reader age for which it’s written, and that you’d love to read now.

It may take a bit of searching; don’t despair. If you start with something and then discover down the road it’s not the story you really believe in, don’t despair. If you find your heart breaking, don’t despair. If you feel blocked, don’t despair. Finding the story you are meant to write can take awhile. It can feel like trying to chisel through rock solid ice. Don’t despair. We’ve convinced ourselves it’s not right to trust in what we truly believe. But if you can find a way to do just that–listen only to that small still voice inside that whispers nothing but inspiration from your imagination and let go of the rest–you will find, in quite a miraculous way, you are no longer a prisoner of perfection syndrome; and self-doubt is nothing more than a cloud passing over the face of a wide open sky.

Being in the World

Risk is absolutely important in becoming a master. In fact, in acquiring any skills at all. Because you have to leave the rules behind and stop doing what one generally does…doing the standard things. You have to push out into your own experience of the world. You have to do something that the rules don’t tell you to do so that you can start to learn to get tuned into the particular features of the situation. – Being in the World (documentary)