Dear Jon . . . (#22) Re: The Lowest Hottest Place on Earth

Dear Jon,


This is the other extreme, says the voiceover. The shot travels low over vivid green pools crowded with strange almost coral-like formations. The shores of the pools are white, crystalline. Only the blue sky seems to confirm or suggest that this isn’t some other planet. The place, as the voiceover continues to say, is the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia – one of the lowest and hottest places on Planet Earth. The footage, from Planet Earth, that flagship BBC programme of the 2000s. The voiceover, of course, David Attenborough. For many people, perhaps particularly for those of our generation, this was one of those TV events that sticks in the head, that stays with you.

I remember how struck I had been by these scant moments of footage. Of the Dalliol Springs, of Erte Ale. Well, that isn’t quite true. It is truer to say that I imagine I must have been struck by it, because my memory has returned to those images, that narration, over and over again. It is easy to see why – it’s so alien and strange, a landscape very different (at least in the twenty first century in which we live) to Essex, or Cornwall which were probably the two places I knew best at the time. Itis extreme compared to the well-corralled fields, the small copses of the school bus route and the miles of suburbia about the high street of the former; or even the wilder cliffs, beaches, and moors of the latter. What strikes me is that, barring perhaps the snow leopard, what I chiefly remember are the landscapes of Planet Earth, not the life that lived on them. I suspect, though this may be wrong, that for you perhaps the reverse was true. 

Earlier though, life had held my attention – the mandatory childhood obsession with dinosaurs, associated with another BBC programme Walking with Dinosaurs, the first programme that I was allowed to stay up late for. Later than that, I had a fascination with birdlife – descendants of the dinosaurs. With my brother that stayed, of course, but even today, while on my daily constitutional in Victoria Park, I was pleased to see a heron do its odd aerial lollop over the memorial trees. Whenever I hear gulls, almost invariably, time is rewound and I’m in a Cornish quay, or upon cliffs looking out over storm-addled seas, and I wish I was there. 

And this is all mysterious, these private obsessions and associations – why do certain things persist and others don’t? Why does Clarissa remember some silly musings over cabbages of all things? Why does that trauma tear you open, and not this? Why does this lead to a tailspin into depression, and not that? Why does this thing bring you joy, and this other thing leave you cold? Why does this image lead to that image, or why do those things appear in your fiction, these motifs, or this character or this word here? We are all these series of accretions and associations, and we’re not even aware, and even when we are aware these are stories that we tell ourselves. So always, when we write, when we live (if such things can be separated), we’re drawing on, fighting with, drawing out, these unknown histories. 

Going back to the Danakil Depression, to Erte Ale, the voiceover continues: here a mountain is in gestation. Can you feel how I beginning to draw this together for a metaphor? An extended metaphor, no less. What I’ve been talking about – these unknown histories, that’s what’s going on beneath the crust, here and there, glaring out of lava lakes, sometimes grinding up together to shake down cities. The maker and unmaker of our psychological landscapes.

At the moment, I’m at work on a new short story. As always the process is proving mysterious. We talk a lot about writing as craft – at least in the sense that like anything else, you show up at your desk and you do the work. In that way, writing is anti-mysterious. It is why writing on TV and films is portrayed through montages. How else do you jazz up the mundanity of just sitting at a desk? But still, while sitting there writing I’m following an intuition that even I have only the faintest idea about. This is pretty common for me. You get out the seismographs, watch the patterns on the lava lake, and wait. What I want to the story to be like – I’m attempting to get at something very vague. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I know that ain’t it. I’ll know it when I see it. I’ll know it when I say it aloud. Or at least I hope I’ll know it. You use analogies, analogues: I want it to be like Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts (I don’t, this is an example) or I want it to do something similar to a Henry Moore sculpture (I don’t, this is also an example). Or whatever else. You check out fiction that does something similar, and puzzle over it. I’ve started doing a diagram to try and map out what I’ve gleaned from other parts of my brain.

I’d be interested in you talking about the gestation of your own work – particularly short prose pieces. What’s (as far as you can track it, if you can track it) the earliest glimmer of it? This is you, as it were, standing at the lowest point.