Thursday, 21 June 2012

Be Spectacular

This post originally appeared here, on my other blog, but it feels as though it belongs here, in the context of recent discussions about who we are as self-publishing writers.
The inscription at the front of my book (life:) razorblades included says simply
"be spectacular and die living"
That's still about as much as needs to be said on the subject of either life or art. The rest, as it were, is just unpacking. It's so incredibly difficult to keep it plastered to the inside of our eyelids as we wade through life, and, to get more specific, as writers setting out "to be published" or "to sell books" or even "to connect with readers". The line itself is something I've become a dab hand at churning out but singularly bad at reflecting upon and aspiring to. My recent lift in spirits and creative direction has been largely a result of thinking about that simple mantra.

Which brings me to one of the catalysts, which in turn got me thinking. One of my favourite films, Man on Wire, was on TV a week or so ago. Watching it, spellbound (for those of you unfamiliar with it, this a documentary about Philippe Petit, a tightrope walker who, with a few co-conspirators, in 1974 illicitly rigged a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, and proceeded to walk across - and then back, and back again, stopping to lie down, to look down, to kneel to the dawn, almost dancing as he played dare with the police waiting to arrest him at the other end), one line struck me. One of the first things the arresting officers asked him was "why?" Petit's response was one of those lightbulb moments. Odd, because it's a common question - we all think of those "why?" "because" exchanges about climbing Everest. But Petit's response wasn't "because", it was to shake his head and despair that after such a beautiful moment the officer had deflated it with something as banal as a question.

For me, that exchange is a perfect commentary on the cultural life.

It also set me thinking (national cultural stereotyoe alert!). One of the things I'm researching for a new book is parkour. Don't worry, I'm not actually doing it, rather I'm researching those who do, and the philosophy behind it.

Parkour (the art of movng through a space continually forward by finding ways for your body - and mind - to overcome obstacles - you may not realise it but you saw it in that BBC ad a few years ago that you thought was all stunts and mats and tricks but wasn't) was given its shape and identity by David Belle (that's him in the video), who developed it with his friends in Fecamp, in France. And then I thought about the incredible "spiderman" Alain Robert. And the stereotyping part of my brain took hold of the fact that the three people I was thinking about were French. Now, we're used to people talking about literature and philosophy in France and their place in French life, but maybe it's not really Bernard Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq we should think of but the likes of Belle, Petit, and Robert.

Petit's words have blended sowly into that mantra over the last few days - the need to do something spectacular, beautiful, memorable and, possibly equally important, inexplicable. But for those of us whose bodies are closer to Henri Levy than Belle, and dabble in creativity with our minds, what does that mean? "Be spectacular" - the rest, as I said at the start, is just the unpacking, and yet absolutely everything is in that unpacking. In focusing on a thing - a single, spectacular, beautiful thing, and moving always and only towards it. Sometimes it seems to me as though the thing is life itself - but life, as my last two collections have been written to demonstrate, is nothing without content, without relentless energy and celebration. At other times I think asking the question at all is the problem - a sign of my Englishness? - and yet these remarkable characters don't have the aimlessness of people who haven't honed down their goal to absolute concreteness in the  way we imagine when we think of a lack of questionning.

Then I thought on, of my recent conversations with friends who know far more than me about zen, Trevor Barton and Viv Tuffnell, and I wondered if they would tell me that the key is not to question but to "know", whcih made me think "but I don't know". But maybe the answer is that it is the questionning - of ourselves, our lives, our world, that stops us from "know"ing what we have to do, and then giving ourselves to doing it. Maybe the answer lies in learning to know oneself well enough that one does not have to question - which sounds a lot like what I have said about confessional art and stripping everything to your most basic truth. I'm still not there, but maybe I'm starting to learn which questions not to ask. The fundamental mantra seems unchallengable, though, for us as artists:

"be spectacular"


  1. Reminds me of 'Let me die a young man's death' by Roger McGough - I remember clinging to that mantra when I was under 30. Even over 60 it doesn't feel such a bad idea!
    If you don't know it, it's here:

  2. One of my father-in-law's favourite poems, Jo - and you embody that lust for life :)

    Thank you, Nathan

  3. Now if I say, I know nothing of Zen, it will become itself a koan...
    There is a great deal of difference between knowing and knowing. One is done with the mind alone and the other is done with heart, soul, spirit and body as well as mind. That way, the knowing is engraved through your very being.
    My teacher called it seeing with your heart, and is only something you learn by doing it. You only know you have done it when you know you have done it.
    Words slip slide, break, perish etc.
    I'm going to try parkour with my students one day, but I will be the one standing still with my body.

  4. If it's inexplicable - and it is - why the hell do so many writers keep trying to explain what they do?

    Have you read Colum McCann's novel Let the Great World Spin? It makes wonderful use of Petit's feat.

    I must admit that I'd have rolled my eyes at much of this post - I'm allergic to commonplaces about knowing and questioning - if it weren't for your last line, which makes up for it all: indeed, be spectacular.

  5. I shall look it up, thank you!