Ronnie O’Sullivan is a published novelist. Why do we write fiction, and what of our self (and not-self) remains?

Book cover with title and author and narrow street view of walking person

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s 2016 novel, Framed.

I’m not sure I’ll read Ronnie O’Sullivan’s novel. I might. I didn’t read his autobiography, but I have an interest in snooker and in the plight of those who’ve reached enviable levels of excellence and struggled to cope. I may even go to it in disbelief – a novel? Rocket Ronnie. But then why not, and I warmed to his comments during the launch publicity that the fictional story, in contrast to his autobiography, had helped him better understand himself through the process.

Do we write to know ourselves or for others to know us?

There’s a heap of reasons why someone wants to write. I’ve talked to people about the mass of words that burden their heads, the way every thought seems to require a fine sentence to make it more real and manageable. Others talk of the need to get that rush of evaporating thoughts into some permanent state in order to reorder and to play. Others need the invention, the pleasure that comes with manipulating a narrative around invented characters who may or may not have the quirks and traits of our friends and enemies.

For some there’s the expectation of that warm hug of childhood memory, that our works are loved and wanted and so we are too.  It can become a need to be heard, a tool for response in the desire to be unachievably meaningful to others’ lives. There’s the ‘being read’ and that’s where it all changes.

And of course anyone who can physically write can creatively write. At the very least they can contribute meaningfully to a ghosting process, and that’s perhaps no worse that Jeff Koons directing a porcelain factory to make a model Michael Jackson. One way or another craft has a democracy about it that many find enormously irritating. While musical composition or painting or magicianship need a journey of skill enhancement before you have anything to show another human being, while stand-up comedy or juggling require  some honing and testing before you dare go before a critic, writing is one of those things – like photography perhaps – that few people want lessons in and that everyone can get an odd good random result at, even if they’re not sure why.

Writing though is the use of words, as are many of our thoughts, as is our examination of self and motive. Whether we are good with them, or great, or not so terrific, there’s a familiar urge to get words down in a form that others might take them on board. There’s a sense that the self has gone with them in some form. There’s a chance that what that self becomes is distorted by our clumsiness, our ungainly phrase, our less than perfect delivery of narrative flow. What changes when we want to write but can’t.

Kundera springs to mind as someone who has characters that want to write but can’t. There’s a whole genre there, even, from Adrian Mole through Stephen Daedalus back to Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee. Not everyone who can’t write is lucky enough to have help – or to have major companies happy to launch us as first timers. Nevertheless, those who can write do; and then they often expect an audience. And there have been many explorations of what it is to hanker to express something through fiction and to struggle with the process.

This brings an interesting question about the need to write. Some of this is of interest in the consideration of what the author might be doing when the writing is shown to another person, and how the self might be adapted or tested upon the reception.

There are a set of circumstances through which this transfer might take place, and again I’m minded of Kundera and that marvellous passage possibly in Laughter and Forgetting where he talks of a desire to be seen by unseen eyes. Here’s a quick set of thoughts that someone else has probably done as a research project but strike me as important to revisit.

Types of audience for writers

  • The author reads their writing aloud.
  • The author has the writing read in their presence.
  • The author places the writing somewhere, knowing who will read it later
  • The author places the writing somewhere, not knowing those who will read it later, but certain that it will be read.
  • The author places the writing somewhere, not knowing whether or not it will be read later.
  • The author reads the piece themselves then destroys.
  • The author destroys the piece without reading it themselves

This seems to offer some sort of parabola, the elements in the middle are distinct in scale. Those at the beginning and end are opposites but have a distinct authorial involvement.

Also each of these allows one of at least two distinct versions, those being whether or not the author is identifying themselves before hand as the author. This may then grow to a veritable hall of mirrors of possible versions, with authors announcing known or unknown versions of themselves, or any number of variables on the false author possibility from a simple pseudonym to an elaborate additional authorial being.

Back to the simple list above. The first two give some direct feedback and have a relationship with performance acts and the multiplicity of creative interplay between performer and audience. This is not normally the preference of an author, though. It is unusual in traditional written fiction and more familiar to publicity tours or fully-performative events for which a piece is specially written.

Many writers would harbour an ambition to be in at number four on the list. An audience that is guaranteed but unknown to us. As amateurs we are most regularly in at number five – like some am-dram Waiting for Godot, our hoped for audience may never come.

There are nuances of the exposed self in each one of these. Do we know the reader of our work, do we know their type or how they will make their judgements? Are we inviting this scrutiny from a predicted reader? How does that condition us and what does it make of self when we write for them?

Stories are legend of those whose readership has passed outside the one they had hoped for or predicted. It’s hard to say ‘poor’ JK Rowling without a snigger, but, if for a moment we have some sympathy, there was an author who created a quite wonderful saga for 7-11 year olds, replete with the many tried and tested literary elements for the age group. Suddenly however, global fame means that it’s being read by those who are rather older, and criticised for what it is or isn’t or, worse, what it should or shouldn’t be. (I’ve heard literary critics moan about everything from unrounded stage baddies in the series, to the lack of a coherent principle of physics.)  JK is famous for keeping her private life as private as possible and has said that, through publication, she expected to stay unnoticed in the background while the book and the characters became famous. Hard cheese, JK, hearts are bleeding.

That’s quite an interesting notion of what a book does for an author, and one that many would perhaps recognise. Our book is what has become famous. Our book is looked at, examined and tested against the rights and wrongs, the excellencies and deplorabilities of the world’s expectations. And – by chance – we, the author are not.

It’s not true of everyone and there are plenty of flamboyant, extrovert characters in the pantheon of literary high-achievers. They don’t seem to be the norm, though. Salinger and Harper Lee may be examples of those who rebuffed journalistic approaches and were characterised as reclusive and perhaps they are good examples of authors who actively feared the fame that their books had achieved and the scrutiny that they themselves were then under.

It may not be too wide of the mark to say that those who gravitate towards writing are seeking something of this possibility around the written word. Writing becomes us, (it goes with our hair…ba-boom!). It does though, we momentarily become our writing, but then it passes from us, never to grow old in itself but to find new life in other minds.

There’s a common trope of the aging painter collecting their early works around them. Collected works perhaps provide a literary equivalent. Here is a chance to assess, to see what we sent out into the world and get a sense of how those representatives fared without us. A chance to reflect how much of self was in them, to see if we still recognise what is there and to see if we can welcome them home without shame.

They are us when we want them to be. How many authors write under a pseudonym and for what reason? One reason is certainly the distance that it allows, as well as the active ‘becoming’ of some other self that it allows. How do we feel if our work is being talked about with the talker unaware that we are listening or that we are the author. Do we pounce into the conversation – well actually, you’ll be amazed to know…. Or do we stay silently proud or shamed?

Are we nervously weighing the control we have over the offer of visibility, like someone dressing to please, we tread slowly away from what is unremarkable and find our way across the see-saw ever closer to what is only too noticeable. Where is the balance and where do we feel most comfortable.

The real fear, surely, is that we will not be able to control the overbalancing rush if it comes. That others will be making the decisions. We offer up control, and, at the same time, seek vainly to retain it.

Jeanette Winterson has been very clear on many occasions that she is a fiction writer. She sees it as a misogynistic belittling of women’s writing that they are accused not to be writing fiction but instead can only write what they know, or about who they ‘really’ are. Is it that fiction is part of a more cultivated approach? In the same way that a more brilliant painter will see the world anew and paint it beyond its own reality, perhaps the fictionalist is getting at the world in a more productive, deeper way.

Autobiography is a well-examined phenomena in literature that is known to shed interesting lights on their authors that weren’t desired, predicted or acknowledged. False auto-biography is commonplace. In the case of Thomas Hardy, he released an official ‘biography’ which was later revealed to be an auto-biography.  There are a range of pseudo auto-biographies, among which are those that:

  • are openly autobiographical and read as informative and semi-objective in scope and tone
  • are openly autobiographical and acknowledging the subjective point of view and its likely limitations
  • claim to be autobiographical but admit swaying from facts (as others would likely accept them)
  • claims to be autobiographical and are consciously but covertly altered from facts others would accept
  • claim to be autobiographical and are unconsciously misrepresenting facts others would represent differently
  • are released as a fiction with disguised autobiography – possibly without full recognition of that likelihood

Is there a sliding scale here, from the desperate attempt at appealing to possible truth to the conscious attempt at falsehood? And does that scale include another parabolic feature, where the centre of the two extremes is something else, something more furtive yet literary.

There are ways for things to not be autobiographical when they emerge: a pseudonymous author, an Alice B Toklas alternative, a non-person, a fictionalised self, a mock self hyped and remedied, or just a character in and of itself alone, the simple way in which all fiction has something of the author’s life in them just as all portraits are in one way or another also self-portraits.

How might any of these identifiably contain more or less of a self that we would choose to show or hide? Or is it simply text from which the author evaporates, freed by their own Barthesque under-importance?

And which is Rocket Ronnie? Hopefully for him a happier man for his writing.

Western Road Brighton – a city’s lost decade and a council’s public shame

Western Road Brighton South Side with boarded up shops and restaurants and the Georgian mock-Pavilion architecture above them.

It’s an embarrassment! Two boarded shops on a central thoroughfare in a tourist town – architectural delights above.

What happened to Western Road? The housing in central Brighton is some of the country’s most expensive outside desirable London; it’s a central thoroughfare between major parts of one of the best-known cities in England; it has architecture to be proud of as long as you keep your head high and yet the locale remains at best a desert, at worst a temple to the low cultural horizons of the twenty-first century British seaside.

Some hint at the city’s former ambitions can be seen if, rather than scampering past the boarded up shops, homeless ghettos and everything’s-a-quid arcades, you look up at the higher floors of the buildings. A walk from the Clock Tower to Palmeira Square offers a number of listed buildings, porticoed and enlarged between 1910 and 1930, designed to rejuvenate and make grand the thoroughfare of wealthy Brighton at the wane of Empire.

A hundred years on and the same buildings are home to only a few stores that aim for that same grand statement or nurture the promise that shopping is a world of elevated feeling, pampering and pleasure and honest satisfaction.  The upper storeys frown down now on a grubbier collection of high-street staples with their plastic signage.  Little testaments to the heightened possibility of the British high street experience exist here still – C&H, Kobar, Burts, Taj, and further towards the Hove border, the marvellous Cutter and Grinder. Back opposite Waitrose, the newly vanished Verano Lounge, once Loch Fyne and then a bar and billiard hall, is now another boarded-up frontage, joining its long-term derelict neighbour, once the site of video-shop Blockbuster. Look up and there are the towers and turrets of a mini Brighton Pavilion to enjoy, but no-one looks up.

Iron frame being erected, British Home Stores building under construction 1931 (later Primark)

British Home Stores building under construction 1931 (later Primark) From Peter Groves’ website

The 1870s took the ‘West Laine’ as it was from a thread of residential housing to a shopping street as it became the main route to the Brunswick Estate – now Brunswick Square and environs.  The Council pre World War One took action to acquire leases in order eventually to standardise the road’s width and bring some elements of planning to the district.

Through the 1920s and 30s the department store boom saw Boots, British Home Stores and Wades along with Woolworths and Marks and Spencers in 1932. A road of accessible and monumental shops, each with a brief to look as impressive as their products. Mitre House (one of the few buildings to have smartened itself in the past decade) also survives from this era. It seems woeful to point to the historic interest that elements of the street have.  Peter Groves speaks neutrally of the development which allowed only “remnants of old residential properties to remain” and points to Codrington Mansion, on the North Side, built in about 1830 and once the home of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, who captained HMS Orion in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  The plaque can be seen above a very ordinary row of shops. A plaque which has yet to be put in place further East might reference the Wisden family’s role in building the original terraces that lead up from Western Road. John Wisden (of the yellow cricket Almanac fame) was born and lived in a house on Crown Street again in the 1830s. By the 1930s big business was making the street grand, Seventy years later the grandeur was all but gone.

A comment on the mybrightonandhove site adds:

I remember as a little girl in the 50s going to a big shop called Plummer Roddis. My grandmother used to take me there and we’d have lunch. It was very posh, but not as posh as Hills of Hove! I also remember Wades, and Vokins down North Street and Hanningtons. What a shame we dont have such good stores nowadays. shops are full of cheap rubbish! Or am I just getting old?  By Lyn Horsburgh nee Waller (of the H A Waller & Sons family) (24/03/2013)

Those who mourn the demise of Hannigtons and welcome the John Lewis promises of a development on North Street might well see Western Road as a particularly desperate case in the annals of British high street history.

Despite the success of North Laine, Jubilee Square and the revitalisation of the seafront since the mid-nineties, many visitors to Brighton see only dirt and depression. This aspect lay in the background of the Guardian’s article on the British Airways i360, as Brighton’s “lost decade.” Western Road couldn’t have been more lost. In a part of England where two bedrooms will cost half a million pounds plus, and which, via Preston Street, could well form part of a tourist walk from the new seafront development by West Pier back to the station, in this bit of town, 10% of shop windows are boarded up, 20% are pop-up or bargain retail, the rest speak to a world of perfunctory everyday and recessional shopping that are part of no tourist itinerary. Primark is a top-end shop on this strip and despite some hot-headedness with planned delivery vehicles, their development did renovate the 1920s West-facing wall and keeps the imposing look that its 1930’s forerunner BHS had planned. It’s sad that the rag-bag of dismal shops here aren’t forced to smarten up to Primark’s example.

Western Road from the i360 at full height

Western Road from the i360 – the tops of the buildings occupied by MacDonald’s and Poundland

While you are advised to look up when heading along Western Road and catch the architecture, rather than the bog-standard corporate hoardings, there is now, of course, a chance to look down on some of these same streets. Three cheers then for the British Airways i360.  Have a glance from the top of the i360 and you see some of what you can so easily miss at ground level, the fact that many of the buildings of Western Road are fascinating and lovely. Above McDonald’s and Argus is a portico that could grace a Greek temple. Beside that are the 1930s department store developments that once sought to inject grandure into Western Road and did so with some style and some longevity.

Yes, at last, following walkouts by Ghery and others, Brighton has a new construction, one designed to bring tourists to spend money, enjoy the seafront – not to mention the lofty view of the sea and countryside – and recommend the place to their hoards of culture hungry friends. Surely the city will prosper, will be famous for something other than the rough-stuff of Cuffs and Peter James – we may even find Brighton is a destination of choice for those who fly to London and seek their day out from among the provincial towns – Oxford, Windsor etc. –  or the quirky interesting features of North Laine will flourish and spread. Or is this thought too genteel and gentrified a prospect.

Brighton can surely compete if we can get our visitors to the Georgian squares at Brunswick and Palmeira and back safely to the station.  However it’s far too easy as a tourist to come down, wander down Queens Parade, West Street, Western Road and then head home wondering what’s so special about this so-called tourist town. What indeed? The lucky ones turn from the station and go through the buzz of North Laine and onto the Lanes and find refuge on the much improved seafront, but it’s easy to miss, or easy to see kiss-me-quick Brighton as the only aspect, an overspill from the 1960s cliche of the dirty weekend resort.

Poundland, Western Road, Brighton

Poundland are allowed a window display of stickers in a conservation area and on a GII listed building

Too few tourists head for the sweeping Regency Brighton of the squares. Even fewer know the sloping, winding streets that make up Clifton Montpellier conservation area. Yet the conservation area touches Western Road, and includes the streets that rise up the hill from it. Heritage protection of all the houses mean most properties need planning permission to change their front doors, must paint facades every two years and can only have bona fide wooden bow sash windows. Yet the Western Road shops seem to get away with atrocities. The council have let Poundland stick their national standard product stickers in the conservation zone on a listed building. At one stage the shop even got away with a giant exposed satellite dish on the East wall. Brand icons proliferate unchecked on tawdry scraps of industrial plastic.  A blue Greggs sign vanishes alongside a range of temporary plaques that offer homage to the low-cost, short-lifespan end of shopping, while banners for closing down sales vie against the stack-em-high sell-em-cheap fly-by-nighters and the insidious brown chipboard that covers so many windows in the area.

Boarded up shop front on Western Road, Brighton

Site of former Jamie Oliver Recipease, closed in 2014. The legacy of the failed venture is a boarded up shop front two years on.

Jamie Oliver’s Recipease moved in, did okay, did a revamp and then shipped out. It’s remained boarded up ever since, with locals looking for who’s to blame and gathering that either the council have failed to control the area or some phantom pension fund have taken the upper hand. Someone must accept responsibility for unaffordable rents, unclean frontages, unmanaged and possibly by now unmanageable degradation. Yet the users, the inhabitants and the range of visitors seem too mixed to produce any positive push on a direction for this place. The percentage of houses owned by those who do not live in central Brighton is huge with smaller properties being prime pickings for landlords and buy-to-lets. In terms of ownership central Brighton regularly tops the most-expensive-places-to-live-outside-London charts. It’s even more of a force in the charts that show the gap between average earnings and average house prices. Few people who can afford central Brighton housing actually work in Brighton – it’s a commuter hot spot, too. By the looks of Western Road even fewer people who can afford central Brighton housing actually shop in central Brighton and at some stage perhaps even this trade will stop.  Boarded out shops cater for no-one.

Yet with the new i360 promising to show us new views of the fifth elevation across Brighton and offering a draw on tourists to the South of the country, there is perhaps some hope. The opportunity is there to make Brighton’s central areas a place of delight and charm for all users, whether passing through, shopping or living. Just get it cleaned up!