Finally got to see Enron on the last day, and was glad I did. I’d mentally filed it in that category of things I ought to see rather than want to see, so I didn’t make any effort to book tickets and would have missed it if my partner hadn’t noticed it was about to end. I made the mistake of reading the glossary in the programme and was lost before I got half way down the page, but the play itself was easier to understand: I find the world of high finance more comprehensible when its machinations are acted out by people wearing dinosaur heads with glowing eyes and Lehmann Brothers is represented by two men in a single raincoat. The musical interludes helped, too, although I went away with the uneasy feeling that perhaps all financial institutions are built on air. These people can say anything, because the majority of us don’t understand a word – and maybe they don’t either. I’d advocate returning to a barter system, except who’s going to want to exchange anything of value for a story?
We spent a week in Amsterdam and loved it. I’d been worried that the children might be bored by a city holiday, but there was a room in the hotel with free internet access, so at least my daughter got her Facebook fix every day. My son wasn’t wildly impressed at being dragged to the Van Gogh, Frans Hals and the Rijksmuseum, but he went, even if he did spend most of the time sitting on benches looking dejected and wishing someone would adopt him.
As we normally stay in the kind of places where we have to sleep on put-you-up beds speckled with stains that would set a CSI’s pulses racing, I insisted on chosing the hotel this time. The one I went for has been converted from the offices of a shipping company and was the first building of the ‘Amsterdam School’. It was built in the shape of the prow of a ship and the marble floors and oak doors have been left intact. The counter with windows where people would have bought tickets or paid for goods to be shipped is still on the second floor and the rooms contain cupboards and shelves that would once have contained files and papers. The wraiths of long-gone office workers seem to cross your path wherever you go. The pool was good too, as was the free minibar. Our suitcases must have been twice as heavy on the way home, thanks to all the miniatures we’d smuggled out. We were close to the station and in the heart of the Red Light district, so my son saw most of the vicinity through a lattice of my fingers. On reflection, perhaps he didn’t have as good a time as the rest of us.
I downloaded my photos when I got home and was trawling through them, marvelling at the way digital technology allows someone as clueless as me to reposition, resize, sharpen and otherwise tweak my pictures before printing them, when I suffered a pang of nostalgia for the days when you had to take your film to the chemist and wait at least 24 hours before collecting your fat envelope of snaps. The excitement of looking at them and recalling the moments they captured is a thing of the past now that every picture we take can be viewed instantly and deleted if found wanting. We can edit our lives as we go, leaving only the best bits. Photographs that reveal secrets are a rich source of material for writers – Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a whole novel based on the consequences of a man’s discovery of a photo of his late wife in which she is holding hands with someone other than himself; that would be less credible today, when the photographer, seeing what he’d captured, would be able to censor it with the click of a button and the offending picture would be gone, along with the premise for the book…
Then I came to a couple of pictures that appeared to show a blancmange-like expanse with a smear of red in one corner. The next photo brought it all rushing back: my partner had cut himself on a cracked toilet seat in the hotel and, being a lawyer, had asked me to photograph his injured buttock just in case he developed something unpleasant as a result (don’t you wish you had my life?). Instantly I was grateful that I didn’t have to face a chemist who’d developed that particular set of pictures.
Watched Review with particular interest on Friday, as it was devoted to the future of the novel – will it continue in its present physical form or be replaced by e-readers and will it continue in its present fictional form or assimilate more aspects of ‘non-fiction’, using real people and events? Naturally enough the assembled writers thought there was plenty of life left in the novel as we know it now, although they did suggest, depressingly, that it’s becoming harder to pitch ‘quiet’ novels, as publishers believe readers want dramatic plots. It’s particularly depressing for me, as my next novel, should it ever see the light of day, is likely to be so quiet that it’s almost inaudible. I’d only read one of the books from the Booker long list that were discussed in the context of novels based on actual events, and that was Emma Donoghue’s Room, partly informed by the Fritzl case. The notion that a book could be life-affirming when its narrator is a 5 year-old boy who was born in captivity and believes that the only person in the world apart from him and his mother is their captor – who the reader knows has fathered him as a result of raping his mother – might seem unlikely, but Jack is such an engaging character, and Donoghue navigates so skilfully around the pitfalls of sensationalism and sentimentality that it works. We can all think of novels whose critical acclaim seems based more on their subject matter than the quality of the writing, and I firmly believe that a writer has to earn her subject matter; I think Donoghue does.
My daughter is writing an essay on Jane Eyre, and to get her into the mood she read it aloud to me. I’d forgotten quite how independent-minded Jane is, and how many of her sentiments about not wanting to be beholden to a man for money or status, if couched in slightly different vocabulary, wouldn’t sound out of place if voiced by the protagonist of a modern novel. Then I remembered chick lit, and wondered where it all went wrong…
P.S. My son has just asked me what an onanist is. This has nothing to do with our visit to Amsterdam; it’s what happens when you let your child read books by Jeremy Clarkson.