A local habitation and a name

Silver rose

A silver almost rose at Christ Church, Darley Avenue, West Didsbury.

Jeanette Winterson and AL Kennedy in conversation

I didn’t know that Jeanette Winterson liked Christmas. Well she does, and a lot, as I found out at a recent event with Jeanette Winterson in Manchester where she is professor of creative writing. It’s not that I thought that she wouldn’t like Christmas, I just hadn’t thought about Jeanette Winterson and Christmas in the same breath.

The event billed as Jeanette Winterson and AL Kennedy in conversation at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama actually began with us all singing Jingle Bells, the first of three singalong carols that evening, supported by a chamber choir, mince pies and mulled wine. I didn’t realise I was paying part of my £12 to sing to Jeanette Winterson and AL Kennedy. It was the first day of Advent, I should clarify.

AL Kennedy – who wasn’t fully in the swing of Christmas – opened with the riposte that bobtails is slang for prostitute so she asked what ‘bells on bobtail ring’ might mean. The evening took us from prostitutes to 5″ orange vibrators to Christmas in Accrington to claims about the nature and value of creative writing, punctuated with readings and carols. We heard a funny and frank anecdote of Jeanette Winterson’s frantic search for batteries in household appliances after her vibrator’s batteries failed at what was presumably a key moment. We also heard a beautiful and moving Christmas story from Jeanette Winterson. Both are wonderful storytellers.

But to turn to the claims about the nature and value of creative writing at the heart of what the audience presumably came to hear from these two writers. For both, writing is a survival mechanism. As Jeanette Winterson so starkly put it, ‘if you’re shut up in a coalhole, either you count coal or you make up stories’. AL Kennedy started making up stories following what sounded like a severe head injury after falling off a horse. (As an aside, she described riding a horse as like ‘riding a big hairy psychopath’. I’ve had a few hairy incidents horse riding when I was a child and tend to agree.) ALK talked about the delight of making another world that you can live in and the moment when writing tips from the thing being made to the thing that has been made and is.

‘Our job,’ said AL Kennedy, ‘is to look closely at things.’

And the point of writing? ‘That someone might read something on a bad day and that something might be something you wrote.’

And why should writers be paid? ‘It’s a cultural necessity to pay writers as it enables others to exercise the habit of imagination.’

But why write? ‘Why do you do it? You do it because it’s life and death. Otherwise we’re in a cultural context in which we live far away from each other and don’t understand. We live in the skin of another in novels.’

The first law of writing? ‘We take nothing and make it into stuff. To hell with entropy.’

On the last point, AL Kennedy quoted this passage from Midsummer Night’s Dream as a writer’s manifesto:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

As she pointed out, making something out of airy nothings defies the laws of physics in which everything breaks down into disorder. That’s not how Salman Rushdie has things in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, as I was reminded by Sasha Handley at a fascinating seminar at the John Rylands Research Institute on ghosts, the supernatural and storytelling in early modern print and manuscripts. Haroun is told: ‘Nothing comes from nothing, Thieflet; no story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old – it is the new combinations that make them new.’

Despite not throwing herself into the Christmas festivities quite as heartily as Jeanette Winterson, AL Kennedy wasn’t short of rejoicing. ‘If you have to live, the only necessary thing to do is rejoice.’ And on that joyous note, I’ll leave you to rejoice and celebrate the festive season in your own way.

More on AL Kennedy’s views on writing…
AL Kennedy’s Guardian blog 
Piece on writing advice to a writer in prison

2 thoughts on “A local habitation and a name

  1. Dear Rambler, I’m with you. I’ve never thought of Jeanette Winterson and Christmas in the same breath either. But now that you say it, it does seem logical. She has more energy and more love bursting forth than any ten people should, so celebrations of any kind likely fancy her. (Incidentally, “bobtails” are horses with their tails cut off. I have no idea why they are cut off, but they are. And they pull sleighs through the snow, with bells on their harnesses. It’s perfectly logical to those of us on the other side of the pond.)

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