Humming-birds are perhaps the very loveliest things in nature, and many
celebrated writers have exhausted their descriptive powers in vain
efforts to picture them to the imagination. The temptation was certainly
great, after describing the rich setting of tropical foliage and flower,
to speak at length of the wonderful gem contained within it; but they
would in this case have been wise to imitate that modest novel-writer
who introduced a blank space on the page where the description of his
matchless heroine should have appeared. After all that has been written,
the first sight of a living humming-bird, so unlike in its beauty all
other beautiful things, comes like a revelation to the mind. To give any
true conception of it by means of mere word-painting is not more
impossible than it would be to bottle up a supply of the “living
sunbeams” themselves, and convey them across the Atlantic to scatter
them in a sparkling shower over the face of England.
W H Hudson
IN the summer of 1983, as I was working on that novel in a hotel room in the Algarve region of Portugal, I came to an impasse. The two main characters had followed my trajectory; they had left Enniscorthy and landed in Barcelona, where they had lived. I had written chapters about the enigma of arrival, about the excitement of the new city, and then about settling there, and also about a sort of unsettlement that came with being away from your own country in a new place of choice. I had written my chapters on the legacy of the civil war in Catalonia. But the novel wasn’t finished; it needed something else, but I had no idea what. I remembered what the Irish painter Barrie Cooke had said to me about starting a painting; he said “you just make a mark.” I was working on a manual typewriter. I thought I would close my eyes for a while, think of nothing, open them and type a word, any word, and then see where that word led. I wrote: “The sea.” An then I wrote: “A grey shine on the sea.” Suddenly, I was back in an Irish landscape, with Irish weather, and not only that, but in a very precise place – the strand at Ballyconnigar on the Wexford coast. I moved my characters there, and I found a calm, stable, melancholy tone to work with. I could see the shore stretching south to Curracloe in many types of Irish summer weather, including days when the haze so easily becomes mist and when soft clouds so easily darken and become rain. Somehow, writing about it was easier than writing about Spain, and the sentences came with less strain….
Novels and stories come only for me when an idea, a memory, or an image move into rhythm. This happens almost of its own accord, and the work can only happen when the initial impulse and the rhythm become nearly inseparable. In the past thirty years as I worked on fiction, the impulse and the rhythm have pulled me from home – Spain, Argentina, the United States, the Holy Land – and then have also nudged me, forced me, pulled me, dragged me, back home to the damp air and the dulled light of the south east of Ireland, closer and closer to things that happened there, to the place of loss, to the loss itself, to minute details, to the very spaces.
Colm Toibin, On Elizabeth Bishop
Roald Dahl, Going Solo
“I had never before encountered that peculiar Empire-building breed of Englishman who spends his whole life working in distant corners of British territory. Please do not forget that in the 1930s the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will. I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foot-hills of the earth, for today it is totally extinct. More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, there were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet. For one thing, they spoke a language of their own… An evening drink was always a sundowner. A drink at any other time was a chota peg. One’s wife was the memsahib. T have a look at something was to have a shufti. And from that one, interestingly enough, RAF/Middle Eastern slang for a reconnaissance plane in the last war was a shufti kite. Something of poor quality was shenzi. Supper was tiffin and so on and so forth. The Empire-builders’ jargon would have filled a dictionary. All in all, it was rather wonderful for me, a conventional young lad from the suburbs, to be thrust suddenly into the middle of this pack of sinewy sunburnt gophers and their bright bony little wives, and what I liked best of all about them was their eccentricities.”