For the next few weeks, Virtual Book Club will be taking a break. Instead, I’m going to bring you an exploration of the use of art in fiction. Fictionalised stories behind real painting; novels based on the lives of real artists; fictional artists, fictional works of art; fictional members of real art movements; fictional muses to real artists; artistic temperaments and tortuous love affairs.
Few things make me feel more like an imposter than responding to author surveys. In one recent questionnaire, an entire section was dedicated to early writing experiences. Did you always want to be a writer? What was the first story you wrote? Did you win any writing competitions while you were at school?
I began to think, ‘I’m not a writer. I’m a failed artist.’ You see, it wasn’t that I didn’t make up stories as a child, but instead of words, I used pictures. My parents’ loft contains the evidence. Scrap books filled with it. Right up to my O-Level year, I spent most of my spare time drawing. Art was the one thing I was supposed to be good at. But then came a hard lesson. The O-Level examiners didn’t like my work. I learned that judgement of what is good is subjective. My confidence was shaken, but the damage went deeper. The experience dismantled my idea of who I was. I left school and, amateur dramatics aside, didn’t return to any creative pursuits until my mid-thirties when I was bitten by the writing bug.
I returned to the theme of art in my recent release, Smash all of the Windows, which tells the story of the emotional fall-out following a fictionalised disaster in a London Underground station. For my character, Jules Roche, art became a representation of pain and grief.
Photograph reproduced with kind permission of Luke Agbaimoni. Find more of his work on http://tubemapper.com/
Here we meet Jules in part 1 of an interview with, London Review, six weeks after second inquest verdict.
London Review: How does it feel to be back in London?
Jules: I think… You know? I think I do not like this question.
London Review: Then… [Fumbles with notes.] Can you tell us a little about –?
Jules. OK, OK. For me, London is the city that give me everything. It is where I meet my wife. I am only here for a wedding. I am supposed to stay for two nights, that is all. But I meet Evelyn and… Pfff [shakes head]. She is very convincing. So London is the place my son is born. And then it see I am happy, and so it take away everything. It leave me nothing. You understand why I prefer to leave it behind. But sometime [holds hands about a foot apart], like now, it call me back.
London Review: Let’s talk about your forthcoming exhibition.
Jules: It is not until next summer, you know that?
London Review: We’ll go to print nearer the time, of course, but thank you for talking to us first.
Jules: OK. Well, my work. It is a response – my response – to the incident.
London Review: So it’s how you chose to respond.
Jules: I choose nothing! I have such sorrow, I cannot meet it, cannot face it. So I turn it into something else, then maybe I can bear to look at it from time to time.
London Review: You only ever refer to ‘the incident’, is that right?
Jules: I do not know how else to call it. I prefer to let the work tell the story.
London Review: But you’re trying to make sense of what happened.
Jules: There is no sense to make of it. That would be a lie.
London Review: So, effectively, you’re using art to express what you can’t say.
Jules: I have words, but they belong only to me and my son. I do not talk to the newspaper. [Widens eyes.] I leave this country so that I do not have to talk to the newspaper! I use art, if that is what you want to call it –
London Review: What do you call it?
Jules: I call it Objets. And I know what I am supposed to say here. My first interview I give about my work, the journalist he ask me, ‘Do you channel emotions through your hands?’ And I cannot answer because I do not know the word, channel, like it is a verb. I know English Channel and Channel Tunnel, but channel emotions, what is that? So I go away and look it up and I think maybe it is what I do. I channel anger. Because, the alternative, though it seem sensible to me, it might not be acceptable to society. And I am a father. I have an eighteen-month-old son. I have responsibility.
London Review: What was the alternative?
Jules: At the time? [Raises his eyebrows.] I think something violent. You also say ‘violent’?
London Review: But you seem so calm…
Jules: It is over thirteen years now. [Shakes head as if amazed.] Violent thoughts, they still come, many violent thoughts. But back then it was something like breaking down doors, smashing windows.
London Review: Because you were angry?
Jules: But of course! I lash out at anyone who come near. This is how it is. Your future is stolen from you and you are angry. The way they clean everything up, wipe out the evidence, you are angry. Life insist you carry on when all you want to do is lay down and die and you are angry. Finding yourself alone in the world with a child, this make you angry. I do not think I am ready to be a father but Evelyn she say, ‘You will be ready when the time comes.’ So I am angry at my dead wife for leaving me in a foreign city with a child who need everything when I have nothing left to give.
London Review: Your wife was English?
Jules: My wife, my son. But I get my revenge. I take Louis to France, bring him up as a good French boy. Actually, no. He speak very good English. We are here often, in London, to visit his English family.
London Review: So your art allowed you to work through your anger?
Jules: For small time, through the work, through my son, maybe a little peace. But you do not put something like this behind you. You cannot say it is over just because a judge rule it is over. In some way my work, it keeps it alive. It is a thing I can pick up and hold. No one can wipe that out. But I leave it in the studio at night, I go home and try to be a good father.
London Review: And these Objets. What do they mean to you?
Jules: It is not all anger. Sometimes it is fear, sometimes it is pain, sometimes hurt. They are a représentation of what it was like to have my life fall apart.
London Review: And we sense that. Some of your pieces feel almost temporary. Can you tell us about the materials you use?
Jules: I like working with things that are not made to last. I like it when they already seem to be falling apart or what do you say? Merde, it is not rotting but it is something [clicks fingers].
London Review: Decaying?
Jules: Decaying! Like frayed rope or something plastique, that thin thin plastique [rubs fingertips together], you know. When I first meet my wife I do a lot of decorating – DIY, you call it. And we go to B&Q. You know it, a huge warehouse. It was one place I know, so that is where my materials come from.
London Review: Almost like Dadaism.
Jules: Maybe, but I do not know that at the time.
London Review: Then there are your ‘broken objets’, as it were. It seems to me that you deliberately destroy your best work.
Jules: Oui, I think that is true. I make it, then I smash it up [shrugs]. There is something primitive about the need to destroy things. Little boys, they take great pleasure, you know. My son do this when he is younger. You take him for a walk and he see a puddle that is frozen and he has to jump in the middle of it. The same with sandcastles. I watch him build a sandcastle so he can jump on top of it. I think, Is he doing this so he can get to it before the sea does? Does he even understand that if he does not destroy it, the sea will? And sometimes I see him jump on the sandcastle a friend has builded and he is laughing. And I tell him off, of course I do. I say, ‘That is a bad thing you do.’ [Wags finger.] But then I go to my studio and I copy. It is a way to feel better. I am a professional – how you say? Vandale.
London Review: Vandal.
Jules: Ah, you see, I only ever get stuck on words that are the same.
London Review: Is destruction part of your process?
Jules: Often yes. Like Louis – that is my son, you know? – I want to be in control. Sometimes I want to take something beautiful and leave my mark on it. I want to show the absurdité, you know. I want to hear the smashing, the splintering. There is a kind of, I suppose… I do not want to say religious meaning. But there is the idea of sacrifice. Always the most beautiful, the thing with the most promise. That is how it seem to me with life. My wife, you know, she carry a bouquet of flowers. That is what they tell me. Yellow flowers. I do not know why. I do not know who they were from. Maybe she buy them for me. [Pause.] Will you take that out of the interview, please? I just listen to all this bullshit again from a man from a newspaper. He was waiting outside to pounce, you know.
London Review: Do you need a moment?
Jules: No. But I would like some water.
London Review: Can we get some water over here?
Jules effectively becomes curator of memories when he asks the families to contribute their most precious mementos so that he can transform them into artworks for his first exhibition at Tate Modern.
When TriskeIe Books published their discussion notes following their book club meeting, I told them that they gave me far too much credit for my descriptions of art. Most of the pieces I describe are re-imaginings of existing pieces. CT singled out ‘Crib’ for special mention, which is a sculpture constructed from the pieces of an unfinished crib that Donovan was making for his unborn grandson who, together with his daughter and future son-in-law, was one of the victims in the disaster. I based it on ‘Cold Dark Matter’, Cornelia Parker’s exploded shed. I love the feeling of momentum and violence; the way that the central positioning of a light bulb means that the shadows become part of the artwork. Parker herself said that she wanted to explore the idea of something that happened in a split second could also be made to have a lasting aspect, and what could be more split second that the moment before a disaster? She also spoke about the shed as a place where you store the things you can’t throw away, and that too had meaning within the context of my novel. The pieces of Donovan’s unfinished crib had been boxed up in the garage for fourteen years, the walnut he chose and crafted so carefully now dulled with bloom.
All I had to do was re-imagine Parker’s work from Donovan’s point of view.
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