The Diary

April 18, 2014 6:25 pm

The Diary: Constantine Phipps

The novelist delights in folk music, rhyming couplets and train journeys
Illustration for The Diary: Constantine Phipps©Luke Waller

Tuesday: I Skype my younger daughter, who’s at Bristol University. She has decided not to come home for Easter, owing to work deadlines. We chat for a few minutes and I see her sitting on the floor outside her library, her long hair falling like curtains on either side of her face. We share a love of folk music and from time to time she sends me a YouTube clip. This time, though, we discuss Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer singing on Gimme Shelter, my daughter having just seen 20 Feet from Stardom, a documentary about backing singers.

When I think of Bristol University, I think of Henri Tajfel, who held the chair of social psychology there from 1967 to 1982. Tajfel was a Polish Jew whose family were decimated by the Nazis, and he set about trying to understand how prejudice worked. In a series of famous experiments, Tajfel showed that prejudice was part of the ordinary person’s thinking. He found it arose from the creation of categories. When people are divided completely randomly into two groups, A and B, they see members of their own group as more similar than they really are, and members of the other group as more different. The brilliance of Tajfel was that he showed this would happen even if the groups consisted of lengths of string. So misjudgment and stereotyping are part of how our minds work. Worse still, members of A are so driven to outperform B that they’ll do it even when that involves a less good overall outcome for themselves.

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Wednesday: to St Andrews, with my wife and our younger son to look at the university, and this means an early start. Our son is semi-conscious all the way.

The driver of the minibus shuttle at Edinburgh airport tells us he’s voting for independence in the Scottish referendum. I say I can see that independence could work: it worked in Ireland and in Slovakia, why not Scotland? But it’s an emotional thing for me. And that’s my impression of the Scots nationalists too: that it’s emotional with them. Emotional, too, that the Conservative party in England, which has so much to gain from Scottish independence, stands out so strongly against it.

The bus driver on the way back says he has recently settled in Dunfermline, which reminds me of the ballad “Sir Patrick Spens” and the king who “sits in Dunfermline town”. I recommend a recent recording by American folk singer Anaïs Mitchell, which the driver promises to check out.

. . .

Thursday: I walk from Chelsea to my hideaway writing room off the Edgware Road, a 50-minute stroll. Today I have to write a short talk about my novel, which comes out next month. The novel is about happiness, and I wrote it in rhyming couplets. My friends ask, “Why did you do that?” It’s a good question because, in literary history, rhyme has mainly been considered a vulgar, slightly meretricious device. It was eschewed in Greek, Latin and Sanskrit poetry. And even in more recent times it’s often had a bad press. Milton called it “the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame meter”. The modernists wanted to bury it. I’ve heard a contemporary poet whose work I admire saying that rhyme nowadays is “nothing but showing off”. I didn’t dare tell him I was writing a 300-page story with a rhyme on every line.

I’m of a generation for whom the most influential medium of entertainment was song. You didn’t have to be told, and there was nothing to learn, but there you were, in the queue outside the Lyceum Ballroom or standing with 20,000 people, as the Pulp song has it, “somewhere in a field in Hampshire”. In popular music, rhyme has been almost universally employed. So maybe I also like rhyme because of the music. Perhaps I’ll grow out of it.

. . .

Friday: a meeting in Mayfair finishes early and I have time to walk to King’s Cross, where I take the train to Yorkshire with my wife and our two sons. I must have done this journey a thousand times. It’s mainly flat countryside – not the most scenic journey in the world – at least till you get to North Yorkshire. But I love to look out of the window all the same. Usually, I think about what it would be like to be walking this route, sleeping rough. In reality I’d be staying at inns but in the fantasy I always sleep rough.

I once asked my family if they had any fantasies when they looked out of a train window. My wife said she imagined doing the journey on horseback (she no longer rides); my daughter said she thought about which fields would be good party venues. Perhaps everyone on the train has these fantasies. Last summer a friend who came to stay with us in Yorkshire walked the whole way from London, accompanied by his 11-year-old son. That’s what I call living the dream.

. . .

Our home in Yorkshire is near Whitby, cut off from the rest of the world by the sea on one side and the moors on the other. It takes longer to get here than it took to get to St Andrews. It’s known for its folk festival and for the Watersons, the royal family of English folk, who live down the coast in Robin Hood’s Bay. I’ve followed them since I was 13, when the owner of the record store in Whitby talked me into buying their seminal album Frost and Fire. My current favourite folkies, Trembling Bells, must also have spent time here, because they sing about Robin Hood’s Bay.

Sometimes I wonder if Yorkshire will become independent one day. Would it then feel any different for Trembling Bells (from Glasgow) if they went to visit the Watersons at Robin Hood’s Bay? I think not. Music is not really a national thing, and nor is literature. It’s true that university literature faculties have developed a kind of dogma that literatures are national, so that American literature, say, is held to be distinct from English. But that’s far from how I feel about it. Many of the writers I feel close to aren’t English, or even writing in English. A good many have been dead for a couple of thousand years.

 

Half-owre, half-owre to Aberdour

It’s fifty fathoms deep;

And there lies good Sir

Patrick Spens,

With the Scots lords at his feet.

The ballad singers carried this through eight centuries, and gave it to Anaïs Mitchell in Vermont, who gave it to me in London. I hope I passed it on to the Dunfermline driver.

Constantine Phipps’ new novel ‘What You Want’ (Quercus) is published on May 1

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