Patrick Gale (1962) werd geboren op het Britse eiland Wight en is de auteur van reeds meer dan tien boeken. Van zijn psychologische roman Rough Music verscheen in 2006 de Nederlandse vertaling Liefde en kabaal. Hij legde tijdens zijn verblijf in Brussel de laatste hand aan zijn roman Notes From an Exhibition (2007) en verzamelde daarvoor een aantal Brusselse ingrediënten.
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Writing Away from Home
It's a perfect June morning with a clear sky and already a promise of heat to the day. My husband was called away from breakfast to start collecting silage bales from a field opposite our house because the contractor who'll be wrapping them in plastic is arriving within the hour. So my small farming task for the morning is to pause, while giving the dogs their first walk, to count the beef cattle in a field near the sea. All thirty-six are there, basking in a contented circle but I linger. The dew has yet to burn off the grass but there's a favourite rock of mine, a huge, flat-topped granite outcrop jutting up from the middle of a long dry-stone wall (what the Cornish call "a hedge") which I know from experience provides a comfortable seat. I climb up there - at which familiar signal the two dogs sigh and flop down in the long grass - take out a small notebook and start to write this article. The sea curving around me is, as we English say, "as flat as a millpond" so I can see all the way to the Scilly Isles. The horizon has disappeared so that the yachts, fishing boats and container vessels dotted around my view seem to hanging in the middle of so much calm blue sky. The only distraction is the buzz of distant tractors and the morning gambolling of two fox cubs, mercifully unnoticed by the sun-sedated dogs.
When I say that this is an entirely typical workday experience for me, not some holiday highlight, you will understand why some friends were bemused at my jumping at the chance to take up a literary residency in Brussels. My life seems to be the perfect writer's retreat. I live on my husband's family farm at the far West of Cornwall (England's toe). We're at least six hours from London, surrounded by fields and down a long, unsurfaced track. The Atlantic is a short walk across our land in two different directions from the house. We have our own little cove for swimming in and such dramatic cliff scenery on our doorstep that it takes some persuasion to have me walk anywhere else. Living with a farmer means that I am left entirely alone for hours of every day - unless it's one of those dread weeks for catching up with EEC subsidy paperwork. It also means that, at regular intervals through the year, I am required to turn my back on whatever I am writing and give priority to farm tasks. I round up and feed the cattle, I plant the cauliflowers that are our winter harvest, I drive a tractor and trailer during the barley harvest and, at least twice a week from November to April, I harvest and bag cauliflowers for whichever supermarket is buying them from us.
Writing fiction can feel such a pointless and neurotically solipsistic exercise that I'm lucky to have these regular chances to feel I'm doing something both useful and readily achievable. The pain of ending a whole day's soul-searching with only a half-page of spidery scribble is healthily balanced by the simple pride taken in two hundred trays of neatly bagged cauliflowers or a full trailer of barley neatly augered into a grain silo. It's less a question of work-life balance than work-work balance...
However there are distractions and problems for a novelist even in such a paradise. A large house and garden need constant maintenance and can see a writer easily caught between twin guilts; is it worse to neglect the housework or the novel, to leave those weeds to run to seed all over the rose bed or to leave that sex scene I've been hiding from all week still unwritten? Then there's the dreaded nurture instinct to combat. If you live with a loved one and you enjoy cooking, it's all too easy to justify neglecting the latest novel in order to bake bread or assemble some crazily time-hungry fish stew.
Worse than any of these distractions for me, though, is my second career. I initially moved to Cornwall because of a boyhood involvement in a festival of classical music down here in the idyllic seaside parish of St Endellion. My involvement progressed, both as a singer and a volunteer, and I have gone from being chorus librarian, to trustee and now chairman. The festival only lasts for twelve days in high summer but it owns facilities it shares with a sister festival at Easter and on any day between January and July I can find myself losing hours to the challenges of finding a suitable concert grand piano to borrow, booking extra rehearsal space, persuading farmers to let us pitch tents, wooing volunteers, shopping for sofas, distributing posters and generally striving to maintain harmony among our small army of performers and helpers. Like any unpaid work, all this has a way of taking up as much time as one is prepared to allow it and I'm beginning to realise why the outgoing chairman has been looking ten years younger since I agreed to take over from him.
With three self-imposed deadlines for delivering a new novel already missed and with the music festival only weeks away, the Het Beschrijf residency I'd initially accepted with a trace of guilt, came increasingly to resemble a palm-fringed atoll to a shipwreck survivor.
The apartment so generously placed at my disposal alongside the Oude Graanmarkt was the ideal haven. White, calm and clean, with none of my own possessions or responsibilities to distract me, it offered a delightful return to the kind of intellectual focus I had not experienced since I was a student. I still cooked, but only for myself so I could eat when I liked and return to writing after eating, write half the night if I chose to, with no worries about being unsociable. I neurotically scoured the apartment for any little non-literary tasks I could achieve and found only two, and replacing the overflow cover on the bath and lubricating the bathroom fan to stop it squeaking took all of twenty minutes...
Interestingly I brought with me my usual writing tics - restlessly experimenting with different writing positions - this chair, that chair, the table or the desk - drinking gallons of coffee and pacing from room to room during those little outbursts of excitement. As at home, I listened repeatedly to the same two or three CDs (in this case the songs of Reynaldo Hahn) to provide myself with an emotive fast-track back into the fictional world I was creating.
The greatest joy, as the novel began to form little heaps of pages along the windowsills and marble mantelpieces, was the combination of a silent telephone and e mails only from loved ones. I always used to say that what novelists need is a life sufficiently uneventful for their growing novel to become the most exciting thing in it. I now realise they also need to be able to sever contact with the outside world for a while, or at least, the world in which they are known. We have an old piggery here I want to convert into a writing room and Het Beschrijf has given me the resolve to have no phone line laid to it.
So as not to drive myself completely insane, I established a routine during my Brussels residency in which I was allowed to write solidly until three but then, even in bad weather, had to leave my work behind and take one of the thirteen historical/architectural walks detailed in my excellent guidebook. (Fittingly this was called Brussels for Pleasure.) Tracking down the less celebrated houses designed by Horta or tracing the all-but vanished traces of Charlotte Brontë's or Arthur Rimbaud's stays in the city, I found I wasn't as relaxed as a tourist should be - I couldn't forget the notebooks still waiting to be typed up in the apartment - but the intensely atmospheric Flemish scene was so far removed from the Cornish one I was writing about that these daily excursions were like refreshing my mental palate with a sorbet. The apartment had been so successful in focussing my mind on my writing that I walked around Ixelles and the great art galleries a little like a sleepwalker, my reality having become the emerging fiction. However now that the novel is done and I'm weeding the garden and baking cakes like a mad thing to take my mind off the awful wait for my agent to deliver his judgement, I find that the Brussels streets and buildings keep looming up in my mind. When the euphoria has settled and I take myself back to another favourite field to begin work on a story, it may well feature one of those strange Horta houses or the symbolic vestige of the Senne that bubbles through Oude Graanmarkt.
22.05.06 > 5.06.06