Let There be Light and Enjoy The Illuminations

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I read for emotional engagement – a resonance in my heart as well as mind – and a love of story. Often I don’t finish a book, or take too long  reading  because it’s a struggle to engage with either the characters, plot, themes or the use of language.

However, a poorly edited book will be finished if the story is powerful or the characters grab me. Cliched I know, but a book must leave something with me to think about long after it’s been returned to its owner, library, put back on my shelf, or passed to a friend.

I have no interest in writing about books I don’t like so can never claim to be an objective book reviewer – I’ll leave that to experts on other sites like writer and friend, Lisa Hill.

I’m attracted to writers who can teach me something about  writing, and Andrew O’Hagan is one of my favourite authors. His use of words crafted into delightful and poignant metaphors and similes; minimal but evocative descriptions and always stories and characters with layers of meaning. He deftly structures his novels to lead to surprising revelations and links that have you nodding your head in amazement because of an ‘ah, ah’ moment of understanding.

I’ll be unashamedly partisan, O’Hagan’s lyrical prose speaks to me in more ways than one because he’s Scottish and many of his beautiful passages capture the Scotland and the people I grew up with and know so well. Even although it’s been many years since I lived full-time in Scotland, I can picture places he describes and hear beloved voices. The memories evoked pure nostalgic indulgence.

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I haven’t read all his offerings but first came across his writing in The Missing, a non-fiction book that had a profound impact. I might review this another time because like his fictional works I’ve read, Our Fathers, Be Near Me, and Personality and now this latest offering The Illuminations, O’Hagan tackles relevant social issues and newsworthy events and weaves them into his characters’ lives. He researches and champions important issues affecting the human condition, makes us think and generates empathy for people and situations we may otherwise ignore.

If you become captivated like me, you’ll seek out his other books – I tend to do that with authors. I remember Mrs Saffin, the librarian at Croydon High School in 1965 trying to break me of the habit of working my way through the shelves by reading all the books of a particular author before moving on to a new writer. (She had limited success.)

On reflection, because I always wanted to be a writer, I don’t think it was a bad idea on my part. When I found an author I liked, I was probably subconsciously studying and learning  their craft and how/why they earned my loyalty!

Thanks to a Christmas book voucher I bought The Illuminations at one of my favourite Melbourne bookshops The Hill of Content . A 40 minute train ride worth making. It’s an oasis of intellectual delight where I often discover books you may not pick up elsewhere and the customer service is second to none.

Andrew O’Hagan’s novel The Illuminations is as the blurb suggests ‘a beautiful, deeply charged story, showing that no matter how we look at it, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.

The novel’s chapters alternate between family events in Scotland and Captain Luke Campbell’s experiences in Afghanistan. Luke’s regiment, the Royal Western Fusiliers carry out the decisions of the powers that be who now believe, ‘creating electricity and irrigating the warlords’ poppy fields was a better idea than blasting the population from its caves.

However, this policy unravels along with the mind of Luke’s commanding officer and mentor, Major Scullion, whose ‘friendship used to be like a winter coat to Luke.’

When Luke examined his face he saw the eyes of a little counter-assassin from Westmeath. They were fogged with humanitarianism and strict orders, but they were still the eyes of a man who knew what to do in a dark alleyway.

In Scotland, we are in the world of Luke’s Canadian-born grandmother, Anne Quirk, once a well-known photographer. Anne lives in a sheltered housing complex in Lochranza Court, Saltcoats on Scotland’s west coast, but her mind is unravelling with the onset of dementia. She faces the loss of independence because ‘any resident incapable of working a kettle would have to be moved to a nursing home.’

Fortunately, for Anne, her next-door neighbour, Maureen has a fascination and fondness for the ‘quirky’ resident. ‘Maureen considered herself the warden’s deputy. It wasn’t a real job or anything like that but she could help the older ones with their laundry. She watered the plants and went for the milk, tasks that gave her a feeling of usefulness she had missed.’

Retirement complexes, small towns and villages, streets full of longterm residents all have, indeed need, their Maureens, who while coming to grips with the present, mourn the past when they looked after children.

And one by one they left the house with their LPs and their T-shirts. That’s what happens, Maureen thought, That’s how it is, You kill yourself looking after them and then they get up and leave you. She never imagined she’d end up in a place like Lochranza Court, but it had been six years and she was used to it.’

The novel is really about Anne whose relationship with her daughter, Alice is strained. Maureen observes there ‘was clearly a part of Anne’s life that was off limits or stuck in the past, but the dementia was bringing it out.’ (This ‘illuminating’ of the past is the crux of the novel.) Maureen feels sorry for Alice and keeps her in the loop regarding her mother. She also writes to Luke on Anne’s behalf and keeps that relationship vibrant.

We learn of Harry, Luke’s grandfather, a war hero in Anne’s eyes, and of Luke’s father Sean, another soldier, also a member of the Western Fusiliers, who was killed in Northern Ireland.  Anne’s dementia and occasional episodes of lucidity hint at unresolved traumas from the past and conflicting opinions about the present and future.

“…in “The Illuminations,” the Scottish novelist and critic Andrew O’Hagan has created a story that is both a howl against the war in Afghanistan and the societies that have blindly abetted it, and a multilayered, deeply felt tale of family, loss, memory, art, loyalty, secrecy and forgiveness.”

Dani Shapiro, NewYork Times.

At the beginning of the book, O’Hagan thanks Abdul Aziz Froutan and colleagues in Afghanistan, as well as members of the Royal Irish regiment for answering questions. And in peculiar serendipity as I was reading the novel the ABC was broadcasting the documentary series Afghanistan Inside Australia’s War featuring the same period as the novel.

In their own words and their own extraordinary, never-before-seen helmet-cam battle footage, Australia’s fighting men and women lay bare their hearts in an epic series – not just how they waged a war, but why and to what end.

O’Hagan did his research and it shows with his depiction of life in Afghanistan. He reveals the importance of  violent Xbox games and heavy metal music to modern soldiers, the amount of pills popped and marijuana smoked, the physical, emotional and mental price paid abroad and at home. The horror of the fighting fascinating, but stomach-churning reading. No wonder there is a prevalence of post traumatic stress syndrome in returning soldiers.

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Sitting on the wall, he smoked a cigarette, watched the water. It was a loss of spirit that had occurred in him… He later wished he could capture the peace he had known over those hours on the seawall as he looked into the the black distance, the lighthouse on the Holy Isle beating out a message just for him. The mountains of Arran he felt he had seen in another time, a recent one, but there was no gunfire or flares, no broken sleep, no enemy below, just the mountains themselves, the steady return of the fishing boats and the light that came with the morning.

After a mission goes horribly wrong, Luke leaves the army and in his quest to try and make sense of life he takes his grandmother on a road trip to Blackpool to see the famous Illuminations hoping to shed some light on the part of her life she has kept secret. In his reminiscing of growing up with a special relationship with this grandmother he reflects, ‘There was endless chat about how life used to be, with details missing.’

In the packing up of Anne’s life for the trip to Blackpool and the inevitable move to a nursing home when they return, Luke discovers letters and photographs which in Anne’s lucid moments she can explain. He begins to appreciate how talented she was as a photographer and wants to understand why she gave it all up.

In the observations and discussions about photography, the novelist has again done his homework. Another thank you at the beginning of the book is

...to Yaddo, and to Mary O’Connor and the keepers of the Joseph Mulholland Archive at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, where he studied the papers of the photographer Margaret Watkins. 

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Serendipity struck again – on March 13th my father would be 94 years old if alive. He died of dementia in 2005. He was an amateur photographer and although many of his photographs are of family there are others where I wonder what motivated him to take the picture? What did his artist eye see? What essence was he trying to capture?

And here in this novel we learn so much about Anne Quirk through the discussion of photography and photographs despite her dementia. I remember visiting with my dad and having conversations about the past. But did we talk about what happened? what never happened? what he wished had happened?

Dad manufactured stories to protect himself from past traumas and it seems O’Hagan’s Anne Quirk does the same. ‘You don’t see the connections in your life until it’s too late to disentangle them.’

This novel stirred many connections in my life, even the chapters set in Blackpool a place I visited in 1984 with my late husband just as they were setting up the illuminations. The B&Bs, the dance halls, the promenade, the pubs, the  grey sea – all wonderfully captured by O’Hagan.

Memory resides in the simplest things but to remember is a complex and complicated task. Are we remembering reality or an imaginary world? Is a photograph an accurate memory? What did the lens not see? Are photographs worth a thousand words?

Towards the end of the novel Luke discovers how good a photographer his grandmother was when he unearths a series of rare private photographs of The Beatles 1962:

‘Luke had to stand up, astonished at the scale and the mystery of what she’d done…For all her mistakes and her bad luck, she had managed this…’

And Andrew O’Hagan has managed to create believable characters and take us into their world to make us care what happens to them. Along the way his writer’s toolbox produced some wonderful descriptions and observations. You’l look at the night sky and the variations of light differently after reading The Illuminations.

I’ll give Andrew the last word from his essay explaining the inspiration for Anne Quirk:

My search … was also a search for the women I had grown up with on the west coast of Scotland. … I realised the book was a tribute to the hidden creativity of those women. I was always drawn to them as a child, and their sense of themselves, their pain and their Glasgow houses, were a kind of haunting thing for me. I was always aware of a certain amount of thwarted ambition on their parts, and by the sense of duty that clung to their gingham “pinnies”, their tabard overalls. As a novelist you come to know that people can be metaphors of one another. My fictional elderly lady has a grandson who is a captain in the British army fighting in Afghanistan. She is interested in reality, as every photographer is, but her own story, and the masking of her talent, play a part in explaining the daily news coming from the battlefront… One’s job as a writer is sometimes to find new proteins for the ideas that matter to you, and the story of this forgotten photographer locked on to my family history in a way that gave the novel the building blocks of life.

What more can I say – read and enjoy – or let me know what you don’t like about it!

Quirky Signs and Witty Words are useful Writing Triggers

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Some days you have to dig deep for smiles – make that some weeks! At the beginning of January because it is John’s birthday, our household struggles with grief – it may be 12 years since his untimely death, but I can close my eyes and it could have been yesterday. We pine for those lost years, imagine all the what ifs…

The girls and I have worked out ways of supporting each other and we have a shelf of DVDs for escapism – movies combining clever dialogue and good old fashioned slapstick, allowing the suspension of disbelief and belly laughs – plus comfort food and cider!

I admire quick wit and words used in a clever, unusual and/or unexpected way. Even in the most tragic circumstances something humorous may happen, and often when reflecting on a bad experience a funny side appears. It may not have seemed funny at the time, but put in perspective we laugh and consider ‘it could have been worse,’ or as my Irish Mother would say, ‘worse things happen at sea.’ We make a point of recounting happy memories of John rather than focusing on the sad effects of his illness and death. One of the attractions, which drew me to John was his keen sense of humour and the ridiculous and we like to honour that!

Social media is full of funny memes, jokes and succinct messages to leave me in awe of the creativity of fellow human beings. There’s the obvious and the subtle, but it’s great someone took a moment to think about what words to use and how to use them, or to search for inspirational quotes, comments and graphics. So many are thought provoking and can inspire  writing.

This quote from Jim Morrison reminded me of how The Doors wore  out my turntable at university, along with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez records! However, daughter Anne loves the music of that era and returned from Canada with vinyl in her suitcase (yes, records are making a come-back), including a rare record by Ian Mathews, which I will listen to when I write about my sojourn on the Isle of Arran in 1973. Listening to music a great trigger for writing memories, but also setting a mood and firing the imagination.

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However, some signs can be excruciating – blatant spelling or grammar mistakes that make wordsmiths cringe. We’ve all been guilty of pressing send/post/submit to soon or with mistakes we’ve overlooked, but when commercial or government companies pay for professional signs and hang, print, publish or concrete them into the ground for posterity, you have to shake your head and wonder who’s head will roll?

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Frankston Council is not sure what word is right so they made several signs – for the same street near Chisholm TAFE of all places – were they looking for ‘exempted’ ? Not sure!

There were many innovative signs to raise a smile when MaryJane and I travelled around the USA by train in 2012. Some were curiosities, some clever, some confronting and all could inspire a poem, travel anecdote or story.

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Poignant signs on the sidewalk in Astoria, Oregon and John Lennon’s Imagine mosaic in the Strawberry Fields memorial and memorial seats to regular users of Central Park New York all fodder for the imagination as did being in LA the day Neil Armstrong died and seeing his pavement star decorated with beautiful flowers, or the seat in honour of the woman who spearheaded the domestic violence awareness program.

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The main reason we visited Portland Oregon and took a trip down the Columbia River to Astoria was to discover more information about an ancestor – Captain John McInnes of Skye, who went down with all hands when his sailing ship, the Cadzow Forest, hit the infamous and treacherous waters near Oregon in 1896. Reading the captions in the maritime museum and seeing relics, emotional as well being informative.

Cadzow Forest article

I kept a journal while we travelled, as all writers should, even although some days it was just random jottings to remind myself to write more detail later. When I write  I focus on character because when I read stories it is the characters who interest me the most, curiosity and caring about their lives a must for me to continue reading.

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Here are two characters from our few days in LA – both encountered at Union Station:

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The taxi ride to Union Station short and uneventful and after I booked us in, I went looking for a coffee and snacks to take on the train. Famima Supermarkets everywhere and if you buy goods, they give you a chit for a free coffee. I laughed. ‘It’ll be another month before we return to Union Station.’

The young assistant smiled and said, ‘that’s fine, there’s no expiry date.’

‘But my memory will probably expire or I’ll lose the chit!’ I said, raising a chuckle of understanding from another middle-aged customer.

I return to our seats and find MJ deep in conversation with Roger and Zac, a father and 14 yr old son  on vacation. They approached Mary  to take their photo. Our waiting time flies as Roger chats non-stop – we learn about his divorce, his recovery from alcoholism, his ex-wife’s bipolar, his 19 yr old daughter’s heart operations and her desire to study film and his son’s college aspirations. Roger, an engineer was born and raised in San Francisco. His job pays well and he pays a lot of taxes, but doesn’t mind and hopes Obama is re-elected. He hates George Bush and Mitt Romney, fears America will go into Iran. He goes dancing every week, has joined single parent and divorcee organisations, wants to lose weight, wants to be in a relationship again, but not ready yet. Would like sex, but is prepared to wait; went skinny dipping at the hotel the night before and dallied with another recovering alcoholic, but she has too many issues… All of this gushed in what seems a single breath, but random order. He’s excited we will be on the same train and suggests we have dinner together that evening.

We are in the same car, but MJ and I go to the Observation Car and get chatting with some other people.  We never see Roger and an embarrassed Zac again – I have a feeling it’s not only Roger’s ex-wife who is bipolar because he appeared manic to me.

However, I dropped the hint I was 10 years older, a widow and not looking for another relationship I think I halted his pursuit and so heard no more of extremely personal confessions!

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It’s 4.15am and we have time to kill on our return to Union Station because although we told  Jeremy, our Airbnb host we’d arrive early, we didn’t want to outstay our welcome immediately!

In Starbucks, a strange lady takes over two stools in a corner and starts to change her clothes and repack her bags. She’s in her 60s, maybe older, or maybe late 50s with skin wrinkled and leathery from the Californian sun. Her blonde/black streaked hair has tips or highlights, or just a bad result from hairdressing at home. It is short and  frames her face and she wears a brightly striped rosette clip. A cotton crocheted top, an eye-hurting fluoro pink is pulled over a black skintight t-shirt. She’s petite and has a lead pencil stuck behind her ear. Sunglasses hide her eyes and reapplied bright red lipstick gleams. She’s making heavy weather of all her luggage reorganising hindered only slightly by  a leg brace velcrozed to the outside of her three quarter denim-look pants. Socks and shoes are changed after meticulously placing the insoles on the tiled floor as if they are walking into her bags! Silver geometric earrings dangle from pink ears and a thick elastic band adorns one wrist – perhaps she is compulsive obsessive or suffers anxiety and the rubber band is to remind her to stay calm?
At last she has packed a tapestry carpet bag and a green enviro bag. Two black leather bags, one a smaller handbag, are strung across her back criss-cross fashion.  She limps out of the cafe where she has been for over an hour, abandoning a coffee cup  as evidence she has been there,  it’s not binned despite all her luggage tidying!

I have a description and the beginning of questions about these fleeting cameos in my travelogue. If I want to include them as characters in a piece of fiction I must work to give them a life, personality, dreams and disappointments, goals and obstacles – and make readers be interested, intrigued, engaged and care about them – something I wouldn’t be able to do, if I hadn’t observed with a writer’s eye and recorded details to help set the scene.