Grace Notes

Daughter’s in Nottingham today with one of her pals, looking  round the University ahead of deciding where to apply come autumn, and I shall be up there tomorrow, spending the afternoon at the esteemed Lowdham Book Festival, helping to launch These Seven, the new collection of short stories from Five Leaves which is a key part of the Nottingham Big City Read and a small part of the city’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature.

As part of that bid, the Notts City of Literature web site is featuring a Poem a Day (well, most days) with Nottingham connections.

Mine – a ‘version’ of the poem “Grace Notes”, recalling listening to jazz in a venue long gone – can be found here. If you’ve a few minutes, please give it a try.

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Writing No End

I took the early morning train up to Nottingham last week for a session with students on the University’s Creative Writing MA programme taught by Matthew Welton. As I had at Goldsmiths a couple of weeks before, I talked about the whys and wherefores of earning a living as a writer over a period of some 40 years, the ducking and diving necessary, the fun, the compromise – the semi-colons; Matthew had chosen two of my poems for us to read together – “Saturday” & “Mutton” – and suggested the students look at the 11th of the Resnick novels, Cold in Hand.

All was going well: the students seemed interested, the book jackets – the old pulp ones especially – looked good on the screen, and who doesn’t like the chance to rabbit on about their own writing?

Then came the question. “How do you know,” the student asked, “when something is finished?”

I fumbled, stumbled, mumbled something about getting to the end of the story you’d set out to tell, finally suggested that only once my editor had read the manuscript and I’d made the revisions asked for, did I consider the job was done.

Towards the end of the session I read the chapter from Cold in Hand in which Resnick goes to the funeral of Lynn Kellogg, his long-time colleague and latterly his lover. After the funeral Resnick returns to the empty house they’d shared, and the chapter ends thus …

The house struck cold when he entered; the sound, as the door closed behind him, unnaturally loud. There was perhaps a third remaining of the Springbank Millington had brought, and Resnick poured himself a healthy shot then carried both bottle and glass into the front room, set them down and crossed to the stereo.
“What Shall I Say?”: Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra with vocal refrain by Billie Holiday. He had fought shy of playing this before, but now thought he could.
The song starts with a flourish of saxophone, after which a muted trumpet plays the tune, Roy Eldridge at his most restrained; tenor saxophone takes the middle eight, and then it’s Eldridge again, Teddy Wilson’s piano bridging the space jauntily before Billie’s entry, her voice slightly piping, resigned, full of false bravado. The ordinariness, the banality of the words only serving to increase the hurt. The clarinet noodling prettily, emptily behind.
As the music ended, tears stinging his eyes, Resnick hurled his whisky glass against the facing wall, threw back his head and  howled her name.

I’d read the passage through on the train and now, reading it again, aloud, I realised there was something about I was less than happy with – the final sentence. It struck me as over-dramatic and, given what I knew of Resnick’s character, unikely. “Howled”, especially. What was I thinking of? “Howled”. Did I think I was rewriting Lear? (Perhaps I did.)

How much better, I suggested, to have closed the chapter with the description of that song, that piece of music – the detailed, pedestrian description itself, of course, serving to hold the emotion at bay; the idea that words are insufficient, inadequate to explain the depth of the hurt Resnick, at that moment, is feeling. Better than the following sentence in which I try, and now, to my eyes, fail.

Some of the students agreed; others demurred, considered it fine as it was. And I’d be interested to know what others think.

One thing, though, is certain, to me at least – the answer to the student’s question should have been, probably never.

5.Cold in Hand