From a writer's view

It should be a rule of life, or at any rate a rule of thumb, that anyone who sits down to write words on paper -- it doesn't matter if it's a novel, a song, or a shopping list -- is provided with one absolutely basic thing. Not paper or a table or a writing implement. Or ink or black-and-red ribbon or carbon. It is: one very high and very wide and preferably very thick brick wall. I'm not suggesting that writing onm the wall is what one is after. What I'm suggesting is that a view, out of the window, is not a Good Thing for writers.

For painters of course it is a marvellous, quintessential proviso. However much certain highways and byways of 20th-century painting may have tried to escape from it, the window, and what is seen on each side of it, is still central to a common sense of what comprises a picture or painting. A painting is "pictorial" whether one likes it or not. It is concerned with here and with there, with the interest of closeness and distance, and with the intermediate membrane (positioned by its frame) which, in a window, is the glass and in a painting the canvas or paper surface. Of all mankind's discoveries, glass is surely one of the most amazing. Just think of it -- a wall you can see through!

And it is precisely this sort of wall that a writer should emphatically not have in front of him. Ideally he should work by artificial light in a cell. He should have, E. M. Forster notwithstanding, a room without a view.

That, at least, is my theory. I have written with the least distraction, and been able most vividly to catch that silent voice which determines word flow, in places that are little larger than small boxes. Some friends in London have a small room that looks directly out onto a black wall: ideal!

When I was living in the Yorkshire farmhouse, moving my desk from room to room as the tides of decoration or alteration surged merrily from one part to another, the principle held. Since the skyline of those limestone hills, with their evocative yet somehow down-to-earth names, "Pen-y- Ghent," "Whernside," "Ingleborough" was never-endingly fascinating, how in heaven could one keep from gazing at it? The final and longest position for my desk was in the only corner of the kitchen which had no window. I put the view behind me.

Now, in Scotland, I am once again writing, confronted by not only a very large window but one through which I can't help seeing what turns out to be a thorougly beguiling expansiveness. It could hardly -- except for two things -- be m ore different from the softly changing Japanese wash of the Yorkshire hills.

There is, admittedly, some rough ground in the front, a kind of forgotten residue of what was probably once a meadow. It remains good dog-walking land. Then there is a mass of willows and silver birch, leafless in winter but warmed by red-browns and yellow-browns in every twig.

Beyond this natural margin (which has miraculously escaped, so far, the privilege of being covered with houses, though it is now being sliced in two by a new motorway) is spread out a spectacular cityscape, crisscrossed with railways, newly opened highways endless with traffic and, from extreme right to extreme left, the River Clyde. Though we are not quite high enough to see the dark liquid that moves along it, the line of this waterway is marked by a large number of cranes, so like giraffes in angle and behaviour (though they don't run much) that the comparison is unavoidable. Houses and "housing" (the difference is palpable in this fiercely industrial place) of all kinds from Victorian times to yesterday seem to cram every space. There are square Edwardian mansions built for the nouveau richem in ochre or brick colored sandstone. There are long , elegant terraces. There are still some old, dark tenements, but Glasgow, like most cities, has replaced many of them with the updated equivalent of apartment blocks. You wonder if these are really any more like home, these rectangular piles of bricks, concrete and mindless rows of windows, than the old slums. Grouped haphazardly, giving them a certain visual charm from a distance, these battery-dwellings are monuments, merely, to housing problems. They are not solutions.

Nineteenth century "Gothic" is represented by the landmark of Glasgow University, with its churchlike spire (though from where I sit I can see more cranes than spires). The football religion has its temple: a kind of two-part warehouse with prjecting canopies called the Ibrox stadium. A beautiful and new feature, out there, are some exceptionally tall road lights which on a misty night and shed veils of light making an enchanted repeat-pattern, as though along some fanciful avenue (actually the M8 motorway).

This is a city view, thoroughly and completely, and I find it enticingly distracting. I find I'm like a child with a new set of trains: everything seems in miniature, buzzing with movements and activities and communications and busyness. Of course there aren't too many cows (though the country park just down the road reportedly has a herd somewhere in its thirty or so acres) and trees are not as numerous as roofs. But beyond the roofs -- and this is one of the things in common with the Yorkshire view -- is a long stretch of undulating hills. You can see to Ben Lomond and further, and, with binoculars, you can pick out the sheep grazing on the nearer slopes. The change from deep urban concentration to untouched countryside is quick and sudden, and from here it gives an intriguing picture: the industrial revolution spawned this city in the valley, but the countryside continued to surround it, more or less. The city may contain and even overwhelm its inhabitants so that they begin to believe no other world exists, but, finally, the countryside contains the city, rings it round and besieges it on every side.

The light -- the second similarity to the Ingleborough view -- is forever altering in this vista. I have only been watching it over a few months (when I ought to have been writing) but I have seen it in all weathers -- golden in the brightening sun, slate-gray in a storm. I have gazed at it dark-and-light and dramatic with rainbows, at night all sparkle, and after an early morning snowfall bringing magic to the hills. So would I exchange all this for a solid brick wall? No chancem . I'm just going to have to learn to write and view-gaze at one and the sam e time. . . .

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