I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself.
— David Mitchell, The Bones Clock
But my mind was like a puppy that wouldn’t remain on the sidewalk and I got tired of tugging the leash to bring it back.
— Kathleen Rooney, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
That is a shared promise of telescopes and literature: to create an illusion of interstellar or inter human travel within the confines of your own skull.
— Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs
Could you stop time? Could you stop time playing itself through you?
— Ali Smith, Winter
Kate Tempest has the sensibility of a poet. Her work abstracts observations of people and environment. It is filled with arresting images. Her medium, however, is multifaceted: song lyric, play, poem, fiction. In The Bricks that Built the Houses, she constructs a novel on top of the foundations of her earlier album Everybody Down. As a Whitstable dweller, I was fascinated to learn that Tempest had spent time in the town, enjoying the benefits of a residency at 57a while working on her book.
This knowledge made me sensitive to the influence of Whitstable and its seafront on the novel, even though it is very much of and about southeast London. Clearly, the book’s beach scene could have taken place there even though other potential destinations are mentioned in an exchange between Harry and Becky. But what really resonated with me was a half line, appearing earlier in the novel, when two of the principal characters first meet: ‘shining like sunlight on water reflecting back on itself and becoming heat’.
I realise, of course, that as the reader I bring my own baggage to this response to a short phrase many others would skim over. But that is the joy of the creative process, and it demonstrates how much a reader, a viewer, a listener, is invested in a work of art that someone else has crafted. They do not merely serve as receivers, as empty vessels to be filled by the artist. They too are active and engaged in the creation. Each reader, for example, brings a degree of freshness every time a book’s pages are cracked open. Your signifier may not be my signified.
These few words in Tempest’s novel have me telescoping back and forth through time, drawing in layers of cultural allusion and personal biography. At the most rudimentary level, I walk on Whitstable’s beach several times a week. I have lived in the town for most of this century. While it bears no resemblance to the Spanish beach location I lived in when a young child in the early-to-mid 1970s, moving there still felt like a homecoming after so many years living away from the coast in the middle of England.
[Photo credit: Whitstable Bay, Richard Martin, June 2015]
At a certain time of the year, at a certain time of the day, the sun glistens on Whitstable’s waters in a way that I find wholly captivating. The light is magical, ever-shifting on the fluid surface. It is not a phenomenon unique to the area, I know. Indeed, it is something that has drawn the admiring gaze of painters, photographers and filmmakers around the globe and throughout the ages, no matter the hemisphere, the waterway or coastal location. Every time I see that shimmering light in Whitstable Bay, though, I am reminded of very specific images from my film-viewing past. Intriguingly, one influences the other, and both involve a formal play with time within the context of the film’s structure.
During the early 1990s, I spent many hours closely studying the films directed by Martin Scorsese. One of these was an adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel The Age of Innocence, the film version of which was released in 1993. In a key scene, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) stands on the Newport shoreline observing from a distance the object of his restrained passion, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ellen stands by a railing looking out across the sparkling waters as the sun gradually sets.
[Photo credit: Still from The Age of Innocence, directed by Martin Scorsese]
A voiceover narrator informs the viewer that Newland gives himself this one opportunity. If she turns, he will go to her. In so doing, he will relinquish his membership of the closed New York society to which he currently belongs, abandoning too his marriage to May (Winona Ryder), Ellen’s cousin. Ellen does not turn, and Newland enters another sliding door.
In the final sequence in the film, an elderly Newland sits in a Parisian street below Ellen’s current home. A flash of sunlight reflected from her apartment window suddenly transports him back in time. Once again he sees the sun-drenched sea but, in his mind’s eye, this time Ellen turns to him opening the way to an alternative life to the one he has lived.
Every time I see the sunlight dance across Whitstable Bay I am reminded of these two scenes. Then my recycled memories jump cut to another film that Scorsese and his collaborators overtly borrowed from: Black Narcissus, a 1940s production written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Set in a convent in India, this is another tale of disappointed love, suppressed emotions and alternative lives. It is vividly realised in Academy Award-winning Technicolor by the masterful cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
It is less a complete scene that I frequently recall, rather a still image from it. While praying in the convent chapel, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) remembers her life before becoming a nun. She is in love, back home in Ireland, fishing. The water shimmers, moving gently in the breeze. She stands in a lake, in medium shot, rod in hand, surrounded by mirrored light.
[Photo credit: Still from Black Narcissus, directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger]
All these images and reformed memories assail me, triggered by the simple play of light on water. Reading Tempest’s words in the past couple of days dredged them to the surface of my consciousness once again. A Russian doll assembly of childhood memories, images from films, cultural allusions and flashbacks within flashbacks. A telescoping of times and frames of reference. Everything is shaken up and reordered as I move across the beach.
It reminds me of Lillian Boxfish’s nighttime walk in New York in Kathleen Rooney’s wonderful novel. The octogenarian time travels across the decades as her journey stirs up memories from different moments in her life. It reminds me, too, of the late Michael Jacobs’s passage through the streets and galleries of Madrid as he recorded them in Everything is Happening. With each new location, he seems to find himself occupying the same space at multiple points in time.
For me, though, there is that added dimension. The thin boundary between fiction and reality has collapsed entirely, and I find myself simultaneously on a beach in Whitstable, in reconstructed memories and in filmscapes that are nothing more than fantasy. Now I have Tempest’s novel to add to the mix too. More baggage to carry to the co-creative meeting point.
That’s one of the things stories and books can do, they can make more than one time possible at once.
— Ali Smith, Winter
The only things which the mind cannot examine are memories of the future.
— Han Kang, The White Book
Time is not outside us, but inside. Only we live with past, present, and future, and the present is too brief to experience anyway; it is retained afterward and then it is either codified or it slips into amnesia. Consciousness is the product of delay.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men
We see very little of what really goes on around us. Science is our probe into invisible realms, be it the world of the very small, of bacteria, of atoms, of elementary particles, or the world of the very large, of stars, galaxies, and even the Universe as a whole. We see these through our tools of exploration—our reality amplifiers—the telescopes, the microscopes, and the many instruments of detection, the rod and line of the natural scientist. If we are persistent, once in a while we see Nature stir, even jump, revealing the simple beauty of the unexpected.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected
- Ian Christie, Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Faber & Faber, 1994, revised edition).
- Michael Jacobs with Ed Vulliamy, Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting (Granta, 2015).
- Kathleen Rooney, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
- Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks, The Age of Innocence: A Portrait of the Film Based on the Novel by Edith Wharton (Newmarket Press, 1993).
- Leslie Stern, The Scorsese Connection (British Film Institute & Indiana University Press, 1995).
- Kate Tempest, The Bricks that Built the Houses (Bloomsbury, 2017).