Reading John Berger at Brisbane Airport or the importance of place in fiction

ImageYes, that’s what I was doing in April and I think the author would have approved of the strange juxtaposition. After all in his novel Here is Where We Meet: a story of Crossing Paths, John Berger did just that. He chose fascinating or unusual places, sometimes associated with the people he was writing about or sometimes not, to place those people in context. And it works. His mother has never been to Lisbon yet her ghost is wandering around the city as if she was born there. And because of this juxtaposition his mother seems more real than perhaps she otherwise would have been, placed in her historical and geographical location of 1930s East London.

Place is obviously very important to Berger and he actually has his namesake John say:

“So time doesn’t count and place does?”

For me reading that line was a charged moment. Place is what I hang all my novels on. I simply cannot write without a landscape to put my people in. I generally write about the first half of the last century and if I manage to chose a landscape that no longer exists – then more the better!

I can still recall coming across a place called Burragorang Valley. Pictures from the 20s and 30s showed a rather beautiful place with guest houses, rolling countryside, creeks and valleys. It was obviously very popular and I wondered why the hell I hadn’t heard about it before. A little more research uncovered the fact that well…it had been flooded! Completely flooded to build Warragamba Dam, the new big water supply for Sydney. I was almost jumping up and down with excitement. This loss suited the novel completely and I think Berger would have approved.

In Here is Where We Meet, Berger places Audrey a young woman he once had an affair with – in not just London of the 1940s but a particular place within that world – Coram Fields. They see the trees of the place as they gaze out the window after making love. Luckily it is still a green area today.

Elsewhere in the novel there is the wonderful setting of Krakow. Against the landscape of the old Jewish quarter in this Polish city, Berger brings the character of Ken, another ghost, alive. I’m not sure if his youthful friend Ken ever went to that part of Europe but the location adds a strong dimension to his portrayal. As John the narrator says simply: “Ken was born in New Zealand and died there. I  sit on the bench opposite him.”

Airports by comparison are like a grey canvas that – for the most part – do not echo with associations. But we can add things to them. Like what we are reading at a cafe before flying home. We can add with deft strokes where we are going or where we came from.  Or at least try to be as successful as Berger is in depicting the atmosphere of a particular place.

Below are the links to the three books I bought back in March and wrote about in my blog of the 18th. All three are imbued with a powerful sense of place.

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan 
Waiting for Leah by Arnost Lustig
The Quartet by Francois Emmanuel

The Power of language and using the right words

I can be a ditz sometimes and very vague as my family and friends will tell you. I recently ordered a coffee whilst in the middle of writing a crucial scene. Fifteen minutes later no coffee. I went up to ask if it was coming and they told me it had been put on my table (behind my laptop) around ten minutes ago. Never noticed a thing! And then today two incidents – both hanging on single words – made me stop and really consider how much we actually take in even when we think we aren’t paying attention.

This morning  working on a new chapter I ordered a coffee (1/2 strength latte) and a bottle of water. The young waitress was standing by my table holding a bottle of water and she asked me did I want one cup or two. I answered: ‘Oh, I’ve already ordered my latte.”  She said: “No, the water.” I replied. “One glass please (as I was by myself). She put one glass down and I thought: Yep, I am a ditz and went back to my writing.

A moment later she moved to the table nearby holding another bottle of water and several glasses and said: “Did you want two cups.” And I realised what had happened. She’s obviously been brought up (although she sounded like a regular Aussie) calling glasses cups for some strange reason. For me a glass is what you put wine, water, soft drinks and liquor in. A cup is what you put tea, coffee and hot chocolate in but that was definitely what she called the glasses.

Move ahead to this evening at Brisbane airport. I have arrived and arrangements have been made for me to catch a connecting bus. On my itinerary is the instruction that when arriving at the airport I must report to the service desk of that company to be booked on the bus. Well I spent fifteen minutes looking for the service desk. There were the usual suspects of hire cars and transport companies but not the company I was looking for. I asked two Virgin employees and they had no idea where it was. I showed them my intinerary – no luck. Finally someone directed me outside and what I thought was a bus shelter for the regular buses was a booth with that company’s name under the roof.

Yes, I know. If I had put my glasses on I might have seen the name from a distance and walked down there but I didn’t because I was actually looking for a service desk which I think to most people’s minds is found inside whereas a booth is often outside. Hence my confusion. That’s language for you!

A lot of the time of course everything goes smoothly and we don’t stop and wonder about such things but when they don’t it’s amazing how the wrong use of language – in both these instances single words – can lead us astray.

As a writer I am very particular about word usage, especially those particular words that signify and are redolent of an era. In Tomaree I spent quite some time checking up “okay”, among other words. (My main character was Amercian.) In researching word usage of WWI for The Grey Silk Purse it is surprising to find that it was common when writing letters and diaries to use “&” for “and”. I’m not sure when that stopped. I mean we still do it occasionally but not as consistently as some diary writers from that time.

All this has brought me back to my writing and the question: Am I chosing the right words – the most effective words – to convey my story and weave a convincing web around my readers? I hope so! What I can safely say is that after today I’ll be extra careful!