Your fourth letter was posted online while I was flying out from Manchester to come and meet you. So this is a cheating sort of letter – written in my hotel room after we’ve already spent the evening together. And we have not ‘cheated’ at all so far – even though I know you are on twitter and I know your email address, we can both, hands on our hearts, say that we’ve only contacted each other through the letters sent for this project so far.
Speed, eh? I know what you mean. There’s such a pressure to do everything right away, and now lots of us own gadgets that mean you’re never supposed to be just idle, looking out of windows, thinking and waiting – but ‘multi-tasking’ and checking your email. Even though right now I am far away from home, staying in the hotel Gradiva in the heart of Istanbul, I have my computer with me…
On the plane on the way here I had to remind myself to shut off my kindle (I was reading Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk, of course) and turn off the in-flight film so I could look out of the window and so I could eavesdrop, as a writer should, on the conversations going on around me. There are so many books to read and films to see, so many places to go, so many people to meet and conversations to be had. Thinking about all the things that need to be done, that should be done, feels overwhelming and exhausting sometimes. Anyone is bound to be a failure in the face of such a formidable to-do list.
Writing itself can become, if I’m not careful, a kind of task to be rushed through as soon as possible. For me, becoming a teacher, and thinking carefully about what teaching creative writing might mean, has helped me become less fixated on the product and more respectful of the slow, halting mystery of the process. We wrote in our last letters about how frightening and risky writing can be sometimes. About how on earth we ‘dare’ to do what we do. Maybe going slowly is another way of making that risk feel like a thing that can be negotiated with. I hope so. I am going to try it, although working in an academic environment where putting out publications fairly regularly is a vital (indeed, an essential) way of demonstrating your value and proving that you’re been busy makes that difficult. Maybe we’ll speak more about that some other time…
Here I am in Istanbul. And what a change for me this is. Maybe this change, this abrupt feeling of being not-at-home is the stumble and falling that you spoke about in your letter. The way the world forces itself past all the speed and business and to-do-lists that we make for ourselves. I brought two cardigans and a duffle coat with me and this morning, when I left Manchester, I had to de-ice my car. And here in Istanbul it’s 27 degrees and as the taxi brought me from the airport into town (a frightening ride, where I had to apologise for clutching, in terror, at the thigh of the Slovakian Ambassador, with whom I was sharing the cab) I saw the sea, and a low-slung orange full moon, and heard the call to prayer float over families picnicking on grass verges, having barbeques, enjoying the late evening sunshine. It was impossible to rush through this – the traffic jam I got caught up in ensured I had to sit and watch. And wait. I’m in no hurry to decide what I think.
I come from Lancashire, which is, even if you’ve been born and brought up there, a strange sort of place. We’re sandwiched between Cumbria and Greater Manchester – both of those places have such strong identities that Lancashire can feel a little anonymous, a little liminal. I like that. Lancashire is in the shadow of two great places, and I think a writer should seek out shadows. Cumbria is fierce and beautiful – sublime in the Romantic sense of the word, and laden with literatures. Manchester is a wonderful place – home to people from all over the world, proud of its gay community, its music, the heritage of its working people. But I come from Preston. It is where I was born and it is where I live now.
My favourite place in Preston is Avenham Park, which is in the heart of this small city. It used to be a park full of old Sycamore trees, but a year or two ago they all became diseased and had to be cut down. My little girl cried about it, and I still can’t really get used to how big and shorn the place looks. When I used to play truant from school (very often) I would be in the library or this park. There’s a Japanese water garden and the park benches have cast iron Sphinx busts on them and the brown, lazy, dirty river, choked up with old bikes and shopping trolleys, meanders through the park and spoons the city and sometimes floods the houses nearest to it. It feeds the nearby marina, which is toxic and stinking with blue algae.
Preston, and the park in particular, were important places in my second novel – Cold Light. I wrote the book knowing that most of the people who would read it wouldn’t know anything about the place and therefore wouldn’t have to battle with clichés and lazy shorthand impressions of the place they’d received from other people or other books. I could let Preston be as quietly strange, as shadowy, as slippery and odd, as it has always felt to me. You’re going to have a wonderful time in Manchester, but perhaps I could invite you a little further north, while you’re here?