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Friday, 29 July 2016

WHAT IF?



My writing at the moment involves characters finding themselves in places and situations where they are not supposed to be. None of them has chosen this. It has been forced upon them – but not by other people. The outcome of events in their lives have simply turned out differently from what was expected to happen.

I love to bring the unexpected into my stories, because it mirrors real life. Life can sometimes seem to resemble a labyrinth of different turning points. The junctions are always challenges, and we deal with them as best we can, but in different ways. Often there is no obvious right way.
Here, one of my characters is raging against what has happened, adamant about doing something to change it.

“I have to try! I can’t sit around and do nothing. I do nothing as it is, day after day! I don’t fit into this time. I’m old, yet I’m young. Do you see? Can you understand me?”

Another character attempts to find the source:

“Is anyone else involved in this – this tangle of disasters?” she asked nobody in particular.

Both of these reactions are very human: rage, blame and self-blame, we’ve all experienced them when things go wrong. The missed train, the wrong turning, the words spoken which cannot be unsaid. We respond similarly to life-altering events. Sometimes our shock is delayed, or we begin to collapse emotionally. In the majority of cases we invoke the words: “what if…?"

  
I use the words ‘what if?’ in a very different context when I am writing. Sometimes they can invoke a change of gear, pushing the entire story into unknown territory.  In these circumstances, I’m not asking ‘what would have happened if…?' alluding to the past, but ‘what might happen if?’ in the future. It serves to push me back further from the various sections of narrative and look differently at the whole picture.

Which brings me to my final point: what if we try out such a question on ourselves? It has, actually, just happened on a massive scale in the United Kingdom. The ‘what if we leave the European Union?’ has become a reality, not just with all the negative baggage which has been attached to the result, but with a courageous, brave and positive shout from those who voted to leave. 

So are these two words in fact an enabling device for changing something in one’s life? I believe they can be. What if I take this train instead of that one? What if I move to this place instead of that place? What if I make a decision and actually do the thing which has been hanging over me? What if I don't? Once you begin to consider the dilemma from a different viewpoint, you automatically move into a better position to make a more rational decision.

In fact, don’t just ‘what if?’ it. Be brave!  Go and DO it!
 

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

THOUGHTS INVOKED BY A BOOK: 'THE SWISS SPY' by Alex Gerlis



So many years ago that I refuse to count, I used to commute into London on the Metropolitan Line. The trains then were fairly new – the line electrified in the 1960s - and they seemed the height of smooth travel. From my station in Bucks, where usually one could find a seat in the rearmost carriage, the forty minute journey into the City of London would be spent – by me – buried in a book.

My fellow commuters would rustle their way through newspapers, seldom conversing, and the journey progressed from stop to stop occasionally interrupted by railway officialdom or the odd incident on the line. One experience has stayed with me, the memory invoked again this week. I can hear the rattle of the carriage doors closing, the whirr of the train moving forward, feel the rush as it gathers speed.  I wish I could remember the name of the book I was so immersed in that day. It was a thriller involving an escape during the Second World War. The escape was being made out of either Germany or occupied France, and the author built tension in vivid detail, paragraph by paragraph. So much so in fact, that when a pair of ticket inspectors appeared near my seat, I was momentarily convinced they were the Gestapo. I felt cold and disorientated as I showed my season ticket; the fear induced by the story was alarmingly real. 

 I haven’t been so involved in a book since then – until now, reading ‘The Swiss Spy’ by Alex Gerlis. Other reviewers have described the story itself, so I will simply mention that it is set in the same WW2 time frame, and recounts with admirable clarity and detail the experience of a double agent as he makes more than one journey into Nazi Germany. Alex Gerlis skilfully paints the grim picture of the oppressed, controlled lives of the inhabitants of such cities as Berlin and Stuttgart at that time, where no-one could be trusted and hope was a mere dream. People lived in constant fear. Worse was to come.

My reading of this book coincided with the EU Referendum on 23rd June and its aftershocks. It has been impossible not to ponder on the fact that the events in the book took place only seventy six years ago. The European Union was formed after the War in an attempt at peaceful trading within its borders. Is such a thing ever truly possible? Do human beings always become sidetracked by their own desires and so, inevitably, by greed and a lust for power over one another? I cannot answer that question.

A book whose narrative causes readers to experience emotions as well as to think deeply about life elevates itself from a mere ‘read’ to something more profound. I have awarded this book five stars for the experience. Would I read it again? One thing is certain: on a re-read, the circumstances of life around me will not be the same. I will answer ‘yes’, but I believe I would leave a gap of some years before so doing, if only out of curiosity about what further changes Europe will have experienced by then.

I doubt I will ever again travel on the Metropolitan Line as I now live so far away from it, but you never know. And it was on another such journey on the same railway line, between Baker Street and Finchley Road, that one of the ideas for my book ‘Losing Time’ was born, the concept of travelling through time during a train journey… so I have reason to be grateful to that particular line!