‘Are you writing a novel?’
I turn to the table next to me where two young men are sitting – one in a grey suit, the other in a crumpled shirt, jacket slung over the back of his chair. It’s not clear who has spoken as they’re both looking at me.
I laugh and say: I am actually, though that’s not what I’m doing right now.
It’s the man in the suit who speaks. His skin is an olive brown, smooth when relaxed, though showing settled grooves with each expression.
What’s your novel about? he asks, glancing at my laptop.
After I tell him, he says: if we’re talking about things that happened to us when we were twelve, I have a story.
I’d noticed the waitress seating them earlier, but I had several websites open on my laptop, which I was trying to read. I was having breakfast before going to visit an exhibition at the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre: A Blessing in disguise – Misuse of Anaesthesia.
It was the start of my blog. I needed something to write about, though not in order to talk in a specific manner – a critic giving details on the merits of this or that. My process is not so clear-cut. There is a moment, before I sit down to work, that I feel a very keen sense of empathy. It is from this, almost heartbreaking, point that words begin to flow.
The exhibition at the Heritage Centre wasn’t an obvious choice, especially to those who know me, but it had given a small sense of possibility. This is what I look for – indications, connections, clues almost.
The previous year I had read about Sir Humphry Davy. Born in 1778, Davy is most famed for his invention of the miner’s safety lamp, but it was his relationship with Nitrous Oxide (laughing gas) that I was more familiar with.
During his twenties, Davy became acquainted with many men of letters, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge – many of whom were to sample Nitrous Oxide, as soon as Davy had proved that it could be inhaled without danger.
For Coleridge, his first time brought ‘a highly pleasurable sensation of warmth,’ as if he had returned ‘from a walk in the snow into a warm room’.
The blog felt like a quest. First had been the decision to write, followed by a gathering of my skills – history, fiction, autobiography – and then a search that had led me to position myself in the direction of the Heritage Centre.
A wind is gathering. Will it blow me onwards?
‘If you’re a writer,’ says the friend in the crumpled shirt. (I hear a Canadian accent.) ‘You should check out the exhibition at the British Library.’
I’m going to an exhibition, I tell him. At the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre.
Why? the man in the suit asks.
There’s something in the way he slips forward in his seat and becomes alert that makes me think he has a medical background.
I shrug and say: I’m on a journey.
Even more reason to go to the British Library, the Canadian friend says.
What’s going on there? I ask.
He thinks for a moment – It’s to do with literature and landscape. I can’t remember the exact name, but it says something about those who wander not being lost.
After breakfast, I walk to Malet Street. Behind me is the Birkbeck library where, during my MA, I came a few days each week to write, stopping for lunch at the same cafe that I’d met those young men earlier. They seemed so unalike, one from Baghdad, one from Toronto; a scientist and an artist.
How did you become friends? I’d asked them.
The artist said: we’re both competitive.
They were rather like Davy and Coleridge, who became devoted to each other. Coleridge promised Davy that he would ‘attack Chemistry like a shark’ in order to better understand his friend. In a letter to Coleridge, Davy states that he has moved his furniture into the garden amidst the strawberries, and is writing in the shade of an apple tree.
‘Thus I begin to claim a relationship with nature,’ Davy writes, appealing to Coleridge’s romantic and poetical spirit.
I take out my phone and call up the Heritage Centre.
I’d like to come and see the exhibition, I say. It mentioned on the website that although entry was free, booking was recommended.
When would you like to come?
I’m in London at the moment, so…this morning?
We’re actually closed today, the voice tells me.
After I hang up, I stand very still. I cannot deny the sense of failure that I feel – the inclination to go home.
Although Davy discovered that Nitrous Oxide appeared capable of destroying physical pain and might be used with advantage during surgical operations, it was nearly half a century later in 1844 that Horace Wells, an American dentist, first used Nitrous Oxide for the painless extraction of one of his own teeth.
Davy was long dead by then. He never knew what a chance he had missed. But at the time of his ‘experiments’ with Nitrous Oxide, Davy wasn’t searching for a practical means of anaesthesia, but rather greater knowledge of how gases affect health and spirits.
He was looking in the wrong direction.
Now I know, with the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre closed, another course is needed, one which I have already been given. I turn right around and begin to walk towards the British Library.
On Euston Road, there is a squat building with mirrored glass. It’s not the only one, but it’s the only one with a garden, growing on its roof. Evergreen House, it’s called. To get a decent photo would mean halting the traffic in both directions. It would be an exciting thing to achieve, but every car and lorry that goes past is trying to get somewhere specific. They don’t have the luxury of stopping, or changing track. I take a photo from the pavement instead.
On my computer that night, it’s possible to see the trees in the street reflected in the building’s mirrored windows. It looks like there is a tree, growing inside the building, bursting through the roof in the way that hair pops out of a sun visor, giving a whole new sense to that rooftop garden.
In the toilets to the British Library, there is a piece of paper pinned above the sinks, saying that someone had left two rings there, which aren’t valuable in terms of money, but hugely important. If anyone finds them could they please get in touch?
The man from Baghdad had commented on one of my rings earlier, asking if it was from India.
Australia, I told him.
He said he had been led by the design.
Waves? I asked.
Or snakes, he said.
The exhibition room is windowless. The air is cool, like the inside of a cave. Original manuscripts lie safe inside locked, glass cabinets. Images are projected onto blackened walls. Sheets dangle from the high ceilings. They are marked with contour lines so it appears as if hills hang all around us. An audio provides the sounds of Industrial Britain, the scrape and pound of machinery. Poems lament industrialisation’s assault on nature. The burden of loss is powerful.
People wander the exhibits and scribble into notebooks, or stand listening to audios. ‘Folk…they lasted but as a breath, a mist of fog in the hills, but the land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever’. This line slips inside me and lies peacefully animate.
The farm where I grew up has been informing my writing for some time. But it isn’t just the memory of the land – its shapes and shadows, flecks and movements – that I write about. It is the way that, growing up deep within the countryside, I make sense of the world – seeing patterns, reoccurrences; coincidences.
Landscape is a narrative: there is the journey across the land, but also the way that land becomes entwined with our emotions. It creates a dialogue of sorts – sometimes one of comfort, sometimes antagonism.
But how to capture all this in words? All through the exhibition, there are writers who have launched themselves from one point of inspiration – be it a wild heath, a cityscape, the sea – their story flowing on.
‘My dear fellow,’ Coleridge was to write to Davy from Cumberland. ‘I wish I could wrap up the view from my house in a pill of opium and send it to you!’ This to me is what we want to achieve as writers – something that will give our readers a whole experience.
When trying to describe his experiences of Nitrous Oxide, Davy reveals the intensity of the search for words to describe sensations entirely novel: ‘like blind men who use the language of sight’.
The search for words is like that photo of Evergreen House. At first, it seems impossible, but then, as language comes, a story – often unexpected – is revealed.
It is this search, the act of seeing and feeling, and consequently laying out words, that is the thrill of writing for me. From one important moment, a chance meeting, a story can unfold.
The brothers have come to stand outside their father’s room. The door is open an inch or two in the hope of persuading a breeze, but even that would be like a hot breath. The summer months are dry. Even at night it rarely drops below 28 degrees. The boys softly push and shove with each other, trying not to laugh. Their bare feet, sticky in the heat, make tender kissing sounds on the tiles. Finally, one of brothers reaches his hand through into the room and feels for the light switch. He clicks it on and just as quickly turns it off again. The brothers freeze, looking at each other. Some of them have put their hands over their mouths. There is the sound of their breathing, shaken by the tickle of laughter in their belly. Nothing happens. One of the other brothers steps forward to try again. He reaches into the dark room: on, and then hastily off.
They hear the father sigh and shift beneath the thin sheet.
On, and then off, once more, most of them giggling now. On, and then off. On. Off.
There is a shout from the father and they all tumble into the room to see him out of bed, grabbing his belt and turning to come after them.
How many brothers? I’d asked the man in the suit.
Nine, he told me.
Nine!? I said.
But the man in the suit simply shrugged.
Yes, he said, composed.
Landscape can enlarge the space the self has to swim in. This was something George Eliot felt keenly. I see my own landscape, and that of the man in the suit, growing up in Baghdad – what different spaces we are swimming in: one sees waves, the other snakes.
Are you the youngest? I’d asked him. I imagined him the youngest, getting away with things.
No, I’m in the middle, he said. My older brothers got to work for my father, doing important things, so they were left alone much of the time. The youngest are allowed to be because they’re cute. So, often the brunt fell on me. My father is head of a tribe. He’s important. Serious. He doesn’t like to be disobeyed.
I was thinking of that belt.
In the commotion, one of the brothers has managed to slip under the bed as his father rushes out onto the landing, chasing the others down the corridor. The boy hears the sounds of beating and later his father’s footsteps, returning. He watches his two dry, greyish feet pause on the rug beside the bed; then each disappears as the mattress heaves and sings above. He waits. The noise of his own racing blood is a constant hum in his ears as he lies on the tiles, seeing the silhouette of a dead beetle close by, against the wall. Outside, the city is quiet – there is only the hiss and spurt of his father’s breathing, which is not yet deep enough for the boy to come crawling out.
One day, this boy will come to England – London – but for now the stretched out shadows, the flat expanse of the tiles, the patterns of the rug almost obliterated by the darkness is the only landscape he knows, as he waits for his father to sleep.