Tag Archives: Penelope Fitzgerald

Writing Game: Placebos

A paediatrician friend told me that his favourite cartoon was of a man at a surgery saying, ‘I’ll take the placebo if it makes you feel better, doctor.’  Or there’s my favourite, The Simpsons, when the people of Springfield rush to the hospital for a miracle drug and are told it is just a placebo.  ‘Where can we get these placebos?’ someone shouts.

But so much for the joke.  A recent Horizon programme showed how something as simple as a pill filled with sugar or corn flour can help in recovery from IBS and Parkinson’s in full flare-up.  A fake procedure aids recovery from vertebral fractures.  And it’s not just health.  The performance of the British cycling team was so improved that one cyclist recorded a personal best time.  A climber was able to function at low oxygen levels.  Best effects are from being given a large red and white pill by someone wearing a white coat.  But it can even work when you know you are being given a placebo.

So, my question is this.  What if you were given a new miracle pill for your particular field of endeavour, and told that, for the period of taking that pill, your performance would improve to a standard beyond that which you thought you would be capable of?  What would you find yourself able to do?

For me, I would find myself able to write with the mastery of Jane Austen, the energy of Charles Dickens; fluency of Penelope Lively; the informal humour of Raymond Chandler; the wit of PG Wodehouse; the poetry of Ken Kesey.

The fictional world would present itself to me as if I were just a stenographer sitting in the scene with the characters.  No longer needing to worry about plot, because that was just something that happened in front of me.  And at the end, I would be able to look back and see how things had connected up, and why the protagonist now finds him/herself where she is.  A fully realised world with insights and knowledge about it seamlessly woven into the prose.  Characters who had both humour and suffering.  A plot that drew you along with a sense of mystery and disclosed something deeper towards the end.

As an experiment, I tried this on a chapter I was rewriting.  Using, as my placebo, a large vitamin pill taken with a glass of fizzy water (no, really).  And certainly there were insights.  Somehow I relaxed more easily into the point-of-view of the main character.  So much so, that when I tried to change something she had said because it didn’t seem right, she got quite cross.  I put it back the way it was.

What we’re talking about would be familiar to anyone who uses solution-focused techniques.  It’s a mild form of self-hypnosis that helps you to overcome the barriers that normally exist.


Lit Crit: The Beginning of Spring

I have two types of fantasy when I’m writing.  The first is that my writing is so unusable that the book will go nowhere, and the one I plan to write next is no better so I’ll end up on the writing scrapheap.  The second is that my book is published and sells well in all territories.  I win the Booker Prize, and go on to receive the Oscar for best adapted screenplay from my own novel (Jennifer Lawrence waves, I wave back).

There is a middle ground in which I am proud of what I write but occasionally I get glimpses of how it could be so much better.

A couple of years ago, a friend suggested that I read Penelope Fitzgerald.  I read a Penelope Lively and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.  Fortunately, every Christmas my godson (via his mother) sends me two books.  And this year one was The Beginning of Spring.  Set in Moscow, 1913, the story of an English printer, whose wife leaves him taking their three children with her.  Set over a few weeks, during which he meets the quiet and unresponsive Lisa Ivanovna. 

There are literary books which are worthy but plodding (step forward Pereira Maintains), but others, like this, that are a joy to read from the start.

Two pages in I was thinking, oh my goodness, it’s a real writer.  Everything is fluent: the observations, the characters, the dialogue.  The humour:

‘Why don’t you send for your wife to keep you company?’

The driver replied that women were only company for each other.  They were created for each other, and talked to each other all day.  At night they were too tired to be of any use.


Miss Kinsman was like his second cousin Amy in Nottingham, younger, but like cousin Amy, who crossed the road rather than go past a public house, because she believed that if she did, the doors would open and men would stumble out to piss, and inside she would glimpse women stabbing each other with hat pins.

There are extraordinary scenes, like the casual torture of a bear cub by children:

They tried throwing cold water over it.  The bear sneezed and shook itself, then tried to lick up the sparkling drops on the surface of its fur.

And the details.  She knows enough to able to tell you that playing cards would be confiscated at the border because their production was a government monopoly; that the production of roubles in certain years were useless; that a printer’s shop would be blessed by the local clergy.  But the point is not just rehashing research.  They are observations of an Englishman born in Russia, who speaks the language, understands the culture, but still does not really understand the country.

Finally, the characters: an angry student revolutionary, precocious children, pedantic printers.  And, the magnificent Selwyn, possibly the most annoying character in literature: a confirmed Tolstoyan with a gift for interfering.   

I finished it at Baker St on the Hammersmith and Piccadilly line and remained, somewhat stunned, thinking about it until I got off nine stops later at Whitechapel.  The ending I had hoped for was replaced by one which was altogether deeper and more moving. 

There are some books that make you despair of ever being able to write so well.  There are others, like The Beginning of Spring that inspire you to write better.