Rivers and Tides


A good way to spend an evening: last night I watched Rivers and Tides, a documentary about the artist Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy’s work uses natural materials and is often produced for specific locations. Many of his sculptures are intricate and fragile – a few times the documentary captures moments when a work in progress falls apart. It’s almost unbearable to watch Goldsworthy’s disappointment before he summons the strength to continue.

In my favourite scene, Goldsworthy is with his family as his children prepare for school. He then sets off to work, strolling through the village collecting dandelions in a metal bowl. Finally he comes to a river where he fills a pool with the bright flowerheads, producing a sculpture for the camera.

In some way’s Goldsworthy’s job seems ridiculous – although maybe no more ridiculous, really, than most of the jobs I’ve done. What’s interesting is how convincing Goldsworthy is: art is how he interrogates the world, at one point describing a sculpture he made while negotiating his grief at a relative’s death. He comes across as humble and unpretentious and, by the film’s end, I felt that he performed a useful and important service.

It’s fascinating to watch Goldsworthy working with materials that no other artist might use  – bracken, icicles, pinning leaves together with thorns. He crumbles stones containing red iron ores, making balls of powder that he throws into water, red dyes floating down river. The documentary makers have done a fantastic job of capturing the works, whether they are still or in motion, and several times I gasped in awe at their beauty.

In the final scenes, Goldsworthy stands in snow, flinging powdery handfuls into the air, watching it drift through sunbeams. It’s a simple piece, just snow and sunlight and, if it hadn’t been captured on film,  might not have been worth mentioning, its simple beauty unremarked.

“I am so amazed at times that I am actually alive.”

(Apparently there is a sculpture trail in Sussex, containing a series of chalk stones placed by Goldsworthy near the village of Cocking, as well as some of his pieces in Petworth. I’d love to see them)


On Writing

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an author – wait! That’s not right, I’m just quoting a film. But anyway. Since I was a child, I wanted to write a novel. Which is a slightly strange ambition, since I had no clear idea about the book, just that I wanted to be an author.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the last twenty years writing novels. Some have been awful, but there are others that I’m quietly proud of. They’ve been fascinating to construct, both in terms of craft and in learning about a subject. I’ve enjoyed producing these strange works, but I’ve never successfully sent them into the world. A few have received very positive responses, but none led to publication. Some people have returned the book with nothing but a standard rejection, sometimes just a quarter-strip of A4 paper. Which, considering the effort I’d put in to researching agents and writing appropriate cover-letters, seemed downright rude. I like sending out novels far less than I like writing them.

I recently finished another project, Tourist Planet, about the experience of travelling in India. And I got to thinking, what now? And I realised that I don’t want to spend any more time writing novels. Obviously, as I’ve argued in the past (notably on the Literature Network site), writing should not be coupled to the idea of publishing. But, really, when you’re spending that much time on an activity, there should be a little more to show for it than a few hundred kilobytes on a hard drive. No, I don’t want to waste my life writing computer files.

And it’s not as if short stories are much better for me. I don’t even bother to send out most of the short stories I write. As much as I love stories like Richey Edwards vs Godzilla, it’s hard to find an appropriate home for them. And since I’ve pretty much stopped reading literary journals these days submitting to any would be pretty arrogant. (At this point, I should call out Alex and Elle who ran Penumbra, which stands out as the best place I’ve been published. If there were ever to be a fifth issue, I’d dust something off for them. Nothing else tempts me).

I’ve had two major life changes this year. Firstly, since April I’ve been working a full time job with Crunch. I’m having a great time but the cost is that I have much less free time than before. I can’t do everything I’d like to, which means I have to make choices. Writing has taken up a lot of my time and I’m not sure it justifies its place against other activities, or even spending more time thinking about programming – which is, after all, what’s likely to be feeding me for the next 30-years-or-so of working life.

What it comes down to is that I want to stop writing fiction. To make a clean break with it. Which is one reason for declaring it on a weblog – to underline that I’m serious, both to myself and to other people. Another is that I have a few commitments to break and it would be useful to have an explanation I can point to.

Writing has been fascinating. I’ve met some amazing people – without the MA at Sussex I’d not have made some wonderful friends. I’ve enjoyed doing spoken word, and have been very grateful for all the opportunities in Brighton. But writing takes up a lot of my time and there are other things I could be doing. I’ve met people in their sixties who say that whose lives will feel like a failure if they never publish a novel. I don’t want to face that fate. I don’t want to have an imaginary career.

No, I want to focus on other aspects of my life. I realised recently that I can’t sew. My cooking, once hilariously woeful is now competent – and I’d like it to be more than that. And I want to spend more time exercising, to lose the chubby belly I’ve had since childhood. I’ve always been convinced there was a slightly thinner person inside me and, if there is, I’m sure he’d appreciate being found and rescued.