No, it’s not snowing. It did, briefly and lightly, one night last week, but at the moment the temperature is a few degrees above what it takes for the cold white stuff to fall, and the sky, though overcast and grey, doesn’t appear to be about to dump any kind of precipitation on us in the imminent future.
This is about the other kind of icy crystal. The kind Graham Greene wrote about. The kind that lurks in the heart of every writer, creating that kind of dual personality which allows us to observe as well as live, so that all experience can be absorbed, transformed and fed into into words on the page. (OK, screen if you must, but at some point a page is involved.)
The trigger for this train of thought was a film. A wonderful, poignant, funny, heartbreaking, thoughtful film which I saw on the big screen (unusually for me – I prefer my visual entertainment delivered live) earlier this week. It’s called The Lady In the Van. It’s brilliant. It’s not crime fiction, or even distantly related, but see it, and you’ll forgive me for digressing this once, and agree. And crime fiction will make an appearance in this post. Eventually. Hang in there.
When the opening titles came up I smiled, and so, I expect, did everyone in the cinema who has ever had aspirations to be a writer. Under the main title was a rider. A mostly true story, it said. True because there really was a lady in a van, and she really did live in it, outside the house of Alan Bennett, one of the UK’s best-loved and most eminent playwrights, for sixteen years. Mostly true because, as said playwright, or the actor portraying him, observed towards the end, she’s dead now, which allows for liberties with reality. Maybe not in those exact words, but all fiction writers take liberties with reality. That’s kind of the point.
Sometimes it was obvious when those liberties were being taken. The final few moments, for instance, when Bennett gave the lady the send-off he felt she would have wanted, rising from the graveyard into golden clouds festooned with cherubs and a large, benign, bearded figure. And there were several more down-to-earth scenes which he couldn’t possibly have witnessed.
But mostly it all happened outside the window in front of the desk he sat at to write. And unusually for a film, the location scenes – which is to say most of the film – were shot in the actual street, outside the actual houses, where it all took place in reality. That reality was, on the whole, rather ordinary, if sharing one’s wider living space with a very grubby old lady, a broken-down van and a small mountain of plastic carrier bags full of goodness knew what can be described as ordinary.
For me, though, the best thing, the cleverest thing, about the entire film (apart from bravura performances by Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings as the lady and Bennett himself) was the way they depicted that icy crystal. (Not so icy in Bennett’s case; it takes a special brand of generosity of spirit to allow an elderly, obstreperous bag-lady with minimal access to bathroom facilities of any kind to live a few feet away from your front door.) They did it with two Alan Bennetts. As he put it, one to do the writing, the other to do the living. The writing Bennett sat at his desk, the living one went about a rather mundane daily life. The writing one tried to resist using the lady and her van as raw material, but eventually, some years after her death, succumbed.
Write what you know, say the manuals which purport to offer lessons. What we know is all too often, like Alan Bennett’s life as shown in this film, ordinary. In Bennett’s case it’s his stock-in-trade, albeit the ordinary observed through an acute and often sardonic, though never cruel, lens.
So began this train of thought. But trains of thought rarely follow a straight path. Where did this one lead me? I started to wonder, if the ordinary, the everyday, is a writer’s raw material, or at least starting point – what kind of ordinary do crime writers experience? Especially crime writers who revel in weird and wonderful murder methods, half a dozen bodies and lots of gore. To fuel that kind of imagination, their ordinary must be a bit more lively than Alan Bennett’s ordinary, with or without the lady in the van.