Booked on Pulse 98.4, 8 January, 2017

This is a recent radio interview I did during my visit to Scotland over Christmas. It was an incredible trip, both personally and professionally. Going back to my home town of Glasgow is always a significant experience for me, particularly since moving to Malta permanently in 2008. It reminds me of where I’ve come from and how much I still love the city where I grew up. Maybe it’s true that you only grasp the magic of the familiar when you’ve gained some distance, but I always loved Glasgow and I always always will.

Glasgow is the setting for my novel Vandalism which was not only published in Malta by Merlin Publishers in 2015 but was subsequently shortlisted in the category of ‘Best Novel’ by the National Book Council of Malta. This was a huge honour and privilege for me, especially as my novel was the only work written in the English language which made it to the final five on the list. Quite an incredible thing.

Vandalism has long since held a deeply important place within my own personal history as it followed me around for many years before reaching actual publication. In the interview, Shirley Whiteside describes it as something that ‘haunted’ me and I like her use of this word. The story, albeit fictional, draws upon my own experience of my Mum’s death through breast cancer, my childhood and teenage years growing up in Glasgow, and all the friends and places which shaped by early life and who I am today.

Perhaps it was only in the moment of responding to Shirley’s image of the novel ‘haunting’ me that I realised it no longer did, or, at least, not in terms of the darker and more negative connotations associated with the word. There has been some kind of resolution to the painful emotions which triggered the novel, even though this has been a process lasting many many years, mirroring the journey of the book itself.

There is something very fitting, and very satisfying, about the situation I currently find myself in, and I say this against the backdrop of a global context which stands in bleak contrast. So as I reflect on my own personal experiences, on the pattern of my own specific pathways through life, and, included within this, an increasingly spiritual awareness, I’m forever conscious of the wider structures and forces in place in which any and every individual life takes shape.

Vandalism is possibly a pertinent title in this respect, describing the ongoing acts of sabotage and willful carnage enacted on the international political stage, with Brexit and Trump’s election being the most obvious examples. Nevertheless, Vandalism, for me, is about reconciliation, compassion, about the bringing together of unresolved grief, anger, and self-destructive energies. The most fruitful acts of vandalism are those which intentionally make a statement in themselves, paving the way open for new and alternative ways of being, perceiving and radically reconfiguring. It can, as it did for me, involve rupture, disfiguration, agonising crises, and painful but necessary moments of catharsis, without which comes the risk of annihilation: the nature of our tenuous human condition perhaps and yet, simultaneously, the possibility of progress through survival.

The text of my novel Vandalism survived across the years and followed me through different phases of my life and within different countries. It haunted me in that the themes and conflicts underpinning the story had the potential to pull the ground from beneath my feet without any warning.

And yet…

Vandalism encompasses a span of 18 years between its original conception on pen and paper and its ultimate completion in published form. While the idea of ‘completion’ seems a little too final, it conveys, to me, a sense of reconciliation between my past and my present which, no longer quite as disturbing or at odds with each other, enables acceptance of the connection between the two.

Vandalism; a novel set in Glasgow, published and acknowledged in Malta.

Vandalism: a novel on sale in Malta and in Glasgow.

Vandalism: a bridge that carries me home.

Vandalism (Merlin Publishers 2015): available from leading bookshops across Malta, at #Waterstones Bookshop Byres Rd Glasgow, and from http://www.merlinpublishers.com

Post by @ShirlWhiteside.

Source: Booked on Pulse 98.4, 8 January, 2017

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Beyond Violence to Compassion

 

The Distant Sound of Violence by Jason Greensides is a beautifully written, poignant and perceptive account of a group of teenagers whose identities are emerging within the urban world of early nineties London. Right from the start, Greensides presents vivid and original characters who leave their imprint long after the story ends. Throughout the novel, it’s the sensitivity and strength of characterisation which highlights the real skill of this particular writer. Greensides displays an astonishing ability to conjure up an entire background and history to his characters while sometimes offering what appears to be the briefest glimpse into their life.

While violence is an ever-present possibility and theme, most of the story occurs on its periphery as the two main characters, Ryan and Nathan, shuffle between personal loyalties, desires and fears. Without either sentimentality or glamour, the descriptive style of the narrative is something approaching sociological poetry – objective, concise, stark and, because of this, heartbreaking. Although there are many instances of this throughout the story, one example in particular illustrates the powerful and immediate impact of this kind of writing.

Justin, someone already immersed in gang culture, displays an almost sadistic cruelty towards his younger brother, Scott, adopting familiar bullying tactics as he does so. The backdrop to this, however, is the death of their mother and although this detail is understated (hence its force), its traumatic consequences permeate a scene in which 10 year old Scott unwittingly interrupts his brother as he’s bringing down Christmas decorations from the loft. Justin has just found an angel which triggers a specific memory of both his mother and his little brother but the plastic figurine also becomes a slightly perverse source of sexual stimulation.

The psychological complexity of this short scene is staggering. Coaxing his brother into fetching the Christmas tree from the loft, Justin closes the trapdoor shut and disappears into his bedroom with the implicit intention of masturbating over the doll. His frustration and his pain and his confusion collide as he feels ‘the place on the right wrist where his mum had once glued her hand back into place.’ He presses down until the hand snaps off and in this split second, we feel the agonising weight of emotions which lack any effective outlet for their expression.<br>There is a real moral struggle involved as Justin unlocks his brother’s makeshift prison and sees Scott ‘sat between some boxes and crates full of his parents’ stuff, curled upright in the foetal position.’ Hugging his brother more tightly than anyone he’s ever held before, his sense of remorse extends far beyond the confines of these cramped four walls.

The detail, care and compassion with which Greensides portrays Justin and Scott is true for all the characters in the book, no matter how they behave in the external world. It’s this which marks out Greensides as a writer to watch.

At its finest, The Distant Sound of Violence combines the sparse realism of a Ken Loach film with the metaphorical resonances of a Graham Greene novel. As a result, Greensides creates an emotive and compelling story which doesn’t finish as the book draws to a close but lingers, curious and haunting, in the mind.

Vandalism and Duende: The Poetry of All Things

This is a small performance piece I gave at Maori in Valletta on Wednesday 24th August 2016, organised by Inizjamed as part of the Mediterranean Literature Festival:

Say No to Vandalism (Damian)

My name’s Lizzie Eldridge and I originally come from Glasgow in Scotland. Some of you may have heard of Scotland. Some of you may even have been there. But just to jog your memory. We’re the ones who voted to say ‘Yes! We want to stay in the European Union’ during that recently surreal, absurd and bleakly comic but not-so-very-funny-at-all-when-you-stop-to-think-about it – that political shenanigans known as Brexit!

Anyway. Leaving politics aside for one evening…(as if you ever can…) My city Glasgow, well, we’re very very friendly, very welcoming (…particularly if you come from Europe) We really are very friendly, as you can probably tell from my general demeanour, appearance and overall genial interaction with you tonight.

But we do have our own wee ways of doing things, our own particularities, our own idiosyncracies, which may seem a bit strange if you don’t actually come from this city. If you’re barrani – as you Maltese like to say! For example, if we like you, we can come across, well, as almost unpleasant…So if we give you a compliment, that’s when you know you’ve got a problem, pal…

Now, this word ‘unpleasant’ and all its different meanings, permutations and connotations. It’s actually an epithet I could easily attach to my own ‘Oh so recently published novel’ Vandalism. Now, please – don’t think that I am merely here to promote my own work! Far be it for me to do such a thing (although why else I’d be here on a Wednesday night in the middle of the working week is beyond me…)

Lizzie Maori

Now why, you must be wondering, would a writer (i.e. me) describe her obviously brilliantly written piece of fiction – nay, literature no less – as ‘unpleasant’? Let me explain…

Vandalism deals with the big issues. It deals with all the things – good and bad, ugly and beautiful, heartbreaking and deeply joyful – that confront us all as we meander along this so-called journey of life. And it deals with these in a very direct way. It doesn’t shy away from the conflicts and contradictions which inevitably occur when emotions and events come together, crash and collide, in all sorts of messy and unpredictable ways.

But at the heart of all this carnage, this brutality, there is poetry because poetry is, for me, the fundamental essence of life. Poetry is the texture, the shape, the feel, the movement, the pulse, the energy…Poetry is the essence of our existence.

And this reflects the influence of a particular writer on my life, my thinking, my ideas, my work: Federico García Lorca. Lorca was a Spanish writer murdered by the fascists at the very start of the Spanish Civil War. And Lorca says this:

Poetry exists in all things, in the ugly, in the beautiful, in the repugnant. The difficult thing is to know how to discover it, how to awaken the deep wells of the soul.  Lorca photo

In Vandalism, the central character, Moira, is watching her best friend dying of breast cancer when Ewan, a man she loved many years ago, reappears in her life. When they originally met, nine years previously, their love affair had limits, parameters. Seven weeks to be exact. You see, when they met, Ewan was already planning to move to Toronto to start a new life, a new job, and the likelihood of him ever returning to Scotland was pretty remote.

In one chapter, there is the recollection of a night nine years before when Moira and Ewan set off into the Glasgow evening to try and catch sight of the full moon. They don’t succeed in their quest but when Ewan leaves, Moira writes this poem:

                        we searched for the moon that night

futile for the clouds

and we were in the city

where lights smother stars

we found the swing park though

kissing beneath out blanket sky

that hid our goal

the moon was full that night

 

and now you’re gone

a journey beyond my world

beyond this city

where lights reflect tears

you left before the moon

could swell to its full strength

and fading stars

seem bright beside my hope

 

but last night something strange

the moon was clear

so gold and round

but not quite full

one small corner shuddered

a head just slightly bowed

a silent soft respect

for the moon we never found

The moon has a fundamental and significant role throughout all of the work of Federico García Lorca. And Lorca appears as a character in my other novel, Duende. Set in Spain during the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War, Duende focuses on the lives of two men, two homosexual men: Nayo, an artist, and José, a philosopher. The story focuses on their love, their life together, the development of their ideas and thinking – all against the brutal and terrible backdrop of escalating violence, political and social divisiveness that culminated in civil war.

At various points during the story, José writes a poem for Nayo and this, as it happens, is his final one:

if Paradise was ever lost completely

if light grew dead

and darkness embraced my mind

if the curve of your body

became a shadow

and the sky collapsed within the sea

I, sleepless, would forever search for you

 

the truth I seek,

desire, delight and dreams

the honesty of angels

whose wings

unfurl to the pulse of our existence

 

windows watching strangers

lighting shipwrecked passers-by

church bells

toll against a weary world

spinning ceaselessly around

 

if the shoe fits

chains may break

and blindness turn to sight

 

the sea baptized us

the water and the wind

gave us a name

 

a sheltered cove

was our creation

our beginning

and our end

 

wine and stars

white moon and snow

sharp russet rose

 

perhaps no home

or country

but still a memory

a whispered touch

a long held sigh

 

you are all I want

all I could need

it’s you I find

infinite and dancing

in the pathways of my soul

The soul, and Lorca’s desire ‘to awaken the deep wells of the soul.’ This, ultimately, is the search for duende. And duende is that need, that impulse, that compulsion, to connect with the deepest parts of ourselves and, in doing so, to make contact with the overarching and vast forces of the universe in which we live and breathe. Frightening, dangerous but vital and imperative, I want to finish with a description of duende taken from the novel itself:

Duende. Mysterious and inexplicable like Goethe’s notion of the Demonic. Duende, that mischievous spirit in myth and folklore. Duende. Something primal, living, shuddering and vibrant. Duende which evokes tears through its music and its poetry. Duende which comes from the depths of the body through the roots of the earth and shakes the entire universe.

Duende Take 2

Vandalism: A story of grief, desire, longing, love and loss

vandalism FB image

Vandalism was published by Merlin Publishers in October 2015 and marked the culmination of a long journey, personally, professionally and geographically. I began writing the novel nearly 20 years ago and the manuscript – in all its various forms – travelled with me from Cardiff (where the writing began) to my home city, Glasgow (where the novel is set), and on to Malta, where I now work and live…and where the book was finally published.

It feels strangely fitting that the book should have found a publisher here in the country where I’ve lived for eight and a half years, and which is very much my home. The publication of Vandalism felt, and feels, like a particular kind of homecoming, something which seems additionally appropriate as the writing of the novel was in itself a crucial means of finding some direction home.

While Vandalism is not autobiographical, like most works of fiction, it draws on aspects of my own experience, subsuming these within a fictional narrative which has a life all of its own. As Oliver Sacks observes: ‘Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.‘ [Musicophilia]

chagall corazon de melocoton

Marc Chagall ‘The Promenade’

Vandalism also emerged from an urgent need to write, a compulsion which underscored the writing of my second novel, Duende. While the latter is both historical and literary fiction, Vandalism is set in contemporary Glasgow and explores issues that may be familiar to many readers: breast cancer; the loss of a close friend; the conflict between the present and the past; memories versus the lived-through moments of the now. And a love affair which brings together a sense of dreams which could have been and places this in sharp distinction with the actuality of what, and so painfully, is.

This contradiction and its heart-wrenching push and pull creates the structure, theme and pulse of the novel in which a young woman, Moira, is anticipating the death of her best friend when a man from her past reappears in her life. To say this gives rise to a juxtaposition of emotions is an understatement and Vandalism doesn’t shy away from exposing some of the blatant and brutal disparities which inevitably occur. Although the side effect of this may at times be shocking, occasionally veering into an  ‘in your face’ mode of delivery, the style of the novel is in accordance with the story that it tells.

It is a bare-faced while rhapsodic narrative of love and loss, of longing, desire, ache and grief. It is a story with no holds barred, unsparing in its refusal to conform to anything that comes close to any black and white morality. It depicts life in all its wide and gaping spectrum of emotions, and it does so without pride, without shame, without condemnation or judgement. The story moves at the same frenetic pace as the actions and their aftermath, simultaneously interweaving the present, the past and, at times, the imagined future. The narrative chronicles the fictional events as these happen and tells the story as seen through the protagonist’s eyes. Anger, pain, regret, abhorrence are just some of the emotions that spill out across the page. As Moira asks at one point:

Why are we all so walking fuckin wounded? We seemed to have everything going for us and now look. Turning thirty with such lack of joie de vivre, such lack of lust for what life has to offer because, of course, we’re bitter and we’re twisted and we’re used to making do with second best. And does our cynicism make us old before our time or have we simply found the easiest way of compensating for the fact that life is not very kind, is not some old and trusted friend who’ll take you to one side and explain everything quite clearly and quite calmly and quite rationally? 

As indicated by the above, the brutality of life remains steeped in a poetic vision, with beauty and cruelty forming two sides of the self-same coin. Whether implicit or overt, the overall depiction of life emanates from a fundamental and unwavering poetic source. This no doubt reflects the influence of the Spanish writer, Federico García Lorca, on all of my work, a perspective captured in his premise that:

Poetry exists in all things, in the ugly, in the beautiful, in the repugnant. The difficult thing is knowing how to discover it, how to awaken the deep wells of the soul. [Impressions and Landscapes]

Lorca appears as a character in Duende, but his presence is there, too, in Vandalism. At one point, Moira and Ewan go to watch Lorca’s play, Blood Wedding, and Moira clearly perceives the parallels between the onstage action and her own love affair:

I almost felt sorry for the expectant groom as his bride-to-be turned to dreams of horse-backed saviours and the heat of another man’s breath. And I trembled at the thought of me and Ewan meeting our gory fate at the hands of some howling mob who refused to understand that our love was true and invincible. Rational explanations would never stop them tearing us apart, limb from screaming limb, and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief that my mother hadn’t phoned for several days now.

The ‘expectant groom’ in Moira’s case is Andy, the man she’s betraying in her desire to be with Ewan. Andy who, while Connie’s in the final throes of her disease, is the one who ‘continued to empty the bins, keep the fridge stocked and fresh, sift through the e-mails, take down phone messages, writing down the names and every number.‘ Andy. The one who unwittingly copied down Ewan’s name and number and so becomes an unwilling accomplice to his girlfriend’s affair. Andy. The man who seems the paragon of virtue: ‘Andy and fuckin Moira.The perfect bloody pair.

In a novel which depicts life as a fairly haphazard process of trial and frequent error, perfection is difficult to come by and the title concept of vandalism permeates the story at every level. It is the needless assault, by cancer, of a young woman’s body; it is the reckless sabotage of a settled relationship in the pursuit of overwhelming desire; it is the wanton desecration of conventional norms in the search for something true. In Vandalism, ultimately, it is a quest, against all odds, to glimpse the fullest moon, ‘to catch sight of a mystery we could never hold in the palm of our hands but would belong to us for always in that chapter of our lives.

dali the moon

Salvador Dalí ‘Still Life by the Light of the Moon’

[Vandalism – A Novel by Lizzie Eldridge (Merlin Publishers 2015). Available from bookshops across Malta, Merlin Publishers, and Waterstones Bookshop Byres Rd, Glasgow]

Please support this Duende ‘thunderclap’ campaign

https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/42645-duende-is-the-true-struggle

If you click on this link, then click on the FB/Twitter/Tumbir button, you kindly add your support to a sort of ‘flash mob’ joint message on 14th June 2016. The message? THE TRUE STRUGGLE IS WITH THE DUENDE (Federico García Lorca)

Thank you Thank you Thank you

Duende Take 2

Duende: a novel about art, philosophy and love

Duende Take 2

Duende by Lizzie Eldridge

‘The true struggle is with the Duende.‘  Federico García Lorca

Ignacio Ramirez Rivera quickly became Nayo thanks to his older sister who deliberately simplified his name in response to his arrival in her world. Although this diminutive form was unusual, soon Nayo’s parents were fondly referring to their baby in this way, pleased a bond had already developed between their two young children. Angelita, the little girl responsible for her brother’s title, herself had a name with a lot to live up to.

Duende, a novel set in Spain in the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War, begins in 1900 with the birth of Nayo in Barcelona. In 1914, he falls in love with a boy called José who becomes his life-long partner at a time when homosexuality was outlawed. The illicit nature of their relationship becomes a means of exploring the nature of love per se and how it is possible to co-exist in a hostile environment.

The Spain in which the two men live and breathe is deeply antagonistic, riven by religious, political and social tensions. In contrast, and reflecting wider European trends, Spain was also characterised by a vibrant artistic and cultural scene, and Dalí, Ortega y Gasset and, most significantly, Federico García Lorca are real-life figures who appear as characters within this book. 

Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) was a homosexual writer and poet murdered by fascists at the start of the Spanish Civil War. He becomes a friend to the two main characters in my novel as their professional and personal interests coincide. Nayo is an artist and José a philosopher, and thus art, philosophy and literature become overarching themes.

However, they become more than simply themes as they permeate every single aspect of the story, being integral to plot, structure as well as characterisation. In conjunction with the tumultuous landscape in which the action occurs, these elements form the momentum and impulse driving the narrative forward. And these elements combine in the title of the novel which, deriving from Spanish folklore and mythology, defies any adequate translation into English. Here’s some descriptions taken from the novel itself:

Duende. Something primal, living, shuddering and vibrant. Duende which evokes tears through its music and its poetry. Duende which comes from the depths of the body through the roots of the earth and shakes the entire universe. The aspiration to perfection is a struggle with the duende and José thought of Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch as the ongoing quest to overcome the limitations of the self. Like Nietzsche’s Will to Power, duende encompasses the the death wish as the duende swoons and dances in its arms.’

Duende, which only appears when there’s the possibility of death. Duende. That most vital struggle, when touching death is knowing, and truly knowing, life. The fucking wrenching ache, the agony of living, loving, dying at the same time.’

José thought of Federico’s premise that all that has dark sounds has duende and knew from his own experience that art, in each and every medium, stemmed from the need to express not only the inexpressible but those emotions which cut so deep that in the act of articulation, the artist writhes in pain. Release has its aftermath in resolution or destruction or, perhaps, in both.’

In the context of 1930s Spain, resolution of longstanding conflicts came through destruction in the form of the Spanish Civil War.Spanish Civil War 3

My own story, which chronicles the lives of two men in their ongoing journey to make sense of their experiences, comes to an end as the civil war begins. For me, as the author, this was a momentous journey as I, too, struggled to comprehend the seemingly irreversible sequence of events that resulted in such widespread and barbaric devastation. However, in the process of writing Duende, I became intensely aware that it was the forces of love that propelled the narrative forward. It was the forces of resistance to increasing brutality. It was the voices of humanity which allowed me to keep writing even when all hope seemed irrevocably lost.

The fact that the precise love at the heart of my story was of itself a form of resistance to prevailing morality served to reinforce its humanity and its universal implications. At this point, it’s pertinent to let the characters speak for themselves:

‘It’s always been about connecting thought and feeling,’ said José. ‘For me, that’s what it’s always been about. And at its finest, philosophy does this. At its best, philosophy becomes poetry and vice versa. Take Nietzsche, for example. When we were talking tonight, a phrase from Nietzsche kept going round and round in my head. I know he’s Rubén’s favourite so maybe that triggered it but I couldn’t get the words out of my mind. Nietzsche said that whatever’s done for love always occurs beyond good and evil. Whatever’s done for love transcends these fundamental dichotomies.’

‘What Nietzsche’s referring to,’ said Nayo, ‘me and you have found that place so many times. We’ve been there and back again. Forget politics. Forget philosophy. We’ve stood there, we’ve tasted it and we know what it feels like.’

José looked at Nayo and nodded.

‘But we also know the ground we walk on can shift,’ he said. ‘For us, it has to. Many times, we’ve been forced to put up barriers in order to defend the very territory we wanted to sustain. That’s how it’s been and that’s how it is. We’ve inhabited a space that’s never been permanent. It can’t be. Because it’s simply not allowed.’

‘But the fact is that we’ve found it,’ persisted Nayo. ‘Even when its truth can only be revealed when we’re as certain as we can be that no threats can interfere, the fact we know of its existence, that we’ve lived and breathed within this is what matters. The fact we’ve been there and can go back there any time we need to, that’s what counts.’

Duende by Lizzie Eldridge: Available on Amazon