Sunday, February 19, 2012

Welcome to the waiting room: an almost real-time braindump about coming across what could become a book one day

I’m at that point with THE NOVEL where I know I’ll be finished with it one day — we’re talking months, not days, not years — and I can afford to open the waiting room in my brain and let some new ideas take up residence.

All ideas are welcome, but some arrive with greater urgency than others, begging for an immediate audience with the physician.

Some arrive alone, enter the waiting room sheepishly, prefer to stand rather than take a vacant seat next to another idea. Some of these loners turn around and walk out after a time, never to return. Others remain standing, refuse to engage with the others. Some relent, take a seat and are drawn into conversation: turns out they have something in common with their neighbour. Other ideas listen in, thinking, ‘Maybe I’m not so alone.’

Some ideas do not arrive alone but with a posse. The leader saying, ‘There’s enough of us here to keep you occupied for the next two years.’

This afternoon I read Brian Dillon’s piece ‘Ruin Lust: our loveaffair with decaying buildings’ in The Guardian. I’m interested in ruins, abandoned and derelict buildings, all of that. Just in the last three weeks I’ve posted about the old Sydney Street substation inWellington and the shut-up Arcadia Theatre in Waimate... But my interest stretches back further, at least to 2007 when my brother started a series of photos on the theme of abandonment... one of which is still the wallpaper on my laptop.

This explains why I read the Guardian article, but simply being reminded of my fascination with the derelict is not an idea. To return to the waiting room metaphor, I've actually opened up several waiting rooms. One of them has ‘Short Stories’ written on the door. Another ‘Narrative non-fiction’. Today I might have opened a ‘Ruins and abandonment’-themed waiting room and begun to siphon all my interests and ideas around this topic into the one space and let them mingle, hook up and fall out while I went about other things.

But there was a particular passage of Dillion’s article that grabbed me.
Reviewing Leopold von Ranke's History of the Popes in the Edinburgh Review, [Thomas Babington] Macaulay speculates that in the distant future Catholicism "may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul's". Macaulay's New Zealander, gazing at the wreckage of the metropolis (and by extension on the fall of the British empire), was for decades a popular image of London's future ruin – its most notable avatar is Gustave Doré's engraving The New Zealander.

Doré, Gustave and Blanchard Jerrold (1872) in London. A Pilgrimage.
Having read these words, a posse of ideas stormed the waiting room with ‘My next novel’ painted on the door.

I’m not saying it will be my next novel, or if these ideas are any good, but I’m noting the process down here to illustrate, in some small way, how inspiration might arrive and how I handle it, plan for it, plan with it, and get things done. Or how I fool myself about these things.

This idea of a New Zealander travelling to ruined civilisations is rich with possibilities. 

My first thought was that this is what New Zealanders do on their OEs already. 

Macaulay’s comment seems doubly prescient as it was made in 1840, the year the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. While it might not have been the birth of the nation (that would ignore a lot of feuding and plundering and some 'we're getting along just fine thanks'), but the events of that year were undoubtedly a catalyst for many of the things that make New Zealand unique today.

Then there’s the idea of ‘the New Zealander’ just being a throwaway line of Macaulay’s, an example of someone from far away, and presumably from a less civilised place. It brought to mind Dominic Corry's piece in the NZ Herald Online last week, 'When movies mention New Zealand.' There are tons of examples from film, TV, books and even video games where New Zealand is shorthand for 'very far away'. It's interesting that this dates from at least as far back as 1840.

I can’t tell from the Macauley quote or Doré's engraving whether 'New Zealander' in this context means 'Maori', as the two terms could be synonymous around this time. But there’s another interesting idea that could be dug into further.

If we’re to take Macauley’s idea literally, a story would have to have a New Zealander look upon a ruined London. It could perhaps take place duringthe city's bombardment during WWII, but I’m not so keen on doing something historical next. The future seems a much more interesting place. The post-apocalyptic section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas comes to mind. In fact, a lot of examples come to mind. Post-apocalyptic fiction seems to have been done to death. But the challenge of taking up a tired genre and introducing new life has its own appeal.

As you can see, there are novelish ideas here, not all of them complementary. It could be a contemporary story of a New Zealander (or a number of them) travelling around Europe and addressing the EU financial crisis and a bunch of other 'fall of a civilisation c.2012' topics. It could be an historical novel set in the 1940s. It could be something set in the future, post London’s own apocalypse (or a worldwide apocalypse). And there may be less literal, less blindingly obvious interpretations of this idea which have yet to enter the waiting room.

The above summarises my first 30 to 60 seconds of head-time after reading the Macauley quotation and clicking the link to see Doré's engraving. But to end the story here would be incomplete and unhelpful. What happens next when an idea sticks up it's hand and says, 'Consider Me!'?

Well, after thinking to myself that ‘The New Zealander’ could be one of several types of novel, I finished reading Dillon’s article. In truth, I started to skim as it held little remaining interest.

Then I googled to see if there were other images of the New Zealander looking upon a ruined London online. I got a whole lot of Doré's engraving, but nothing else after scrolling through the first few dozen results.

I did, however, open up two pages that promised to address Macauley’s quotation in more detail. The first was ‘WhenThe New Zealander Comes’ by Prof. Blyde Muddersnook, P.O.Z.A.S. from The Strand Magazine, September 1911 (via 

Let us take a moment to admire the author’s name.


The next link was to “The Stupendous Past”: Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins” by Will Viney.

This second one looked to be less about Thomas Babington Macaulay than his first cousin twice removed, so I tackled it first (being inherently lazy and impatient; if I was an insect I’d be one of those ones that spend most of their time zipping around on the surface of ponds).

An interesting tidbit worth noting:
“So prevalent did this idea of the inquisitive and judgmental New Zealander become that by 1865 Punch placed it on their list of ruined rhetoric, literary devices judged to be “used up, exhausted, threadbare, stale and hackneyed.”

Let us take a moment to admire the pun in ‘ruined rhetoric.’


The article notes that Doré's New Zealander is a “racial and political outsider, wandering from the periphery of things to visit the fallen core of an empire now past” (my emphasis). Okay, duly noted.

If I decide to pursue this ‘The New Zealander’ idea further, I guess I’ll have to tackle Rose Macauley’s ‘Pleasure of Ruins’, but for now I was happy just to skim the rest of the article.

I then turned to Prof. Blyde Muddersnook’s 1911 article.

I quickly realised this was a piece of satire (man, I wish there was a real Prof. Muddersnook). It's the future, baby, and New Zealand is the height of civilisation (and now just called Zealand). Lun-dun is being excavated. A team of archaeologists from Auckland arrive at “the ancient village of Suthuk, which is on the edge of the river-bed of the Thames, most of which is now reclaimed land planted with cabbages, the export of which forms the principal staple of the country.”

The appeal and the limitations of the piece are evident in the following two sentences, midway through:
“Indeed, it is no wonder that this island became gradually depopulated in the course of centuries, when its inhabitants had to endure such climatic hardships. Indeed, to one accustomed to the climates of old Zealand, Australis, Krugerland, Mapleland, Dai-Nippon, and other parts of the world, not to mention Mars and the moon, it is hard to realize how any intelligent race of men would consent to continue existence in such a bleak island.”

You can’t start two sentences with ‘indeed’. But it is funny, in a trying-slightly-too-hard way.

I’ll admit, again, that I reverted to my skimming ways not long after this passage.

I think there’s only so long you can explore a new idea immediately following its entrance into the waiting room.

It did occur to me that, as I was sitting at my computer and distracted by ideas that aren't anything to do with THE NOVEL, I could write the last hour up as a blog post. Et voila!

It’s best now that I walk away. Play hard to get with 'The New Zealander(s)'. If the posse is still there when I’m ready for them, then I’ll come back here and click on these next few links (which I haven't read and can't vouch for their relevance):
Stay tuned. One day I may post about what happens when an idea sticks up its hand and says 'Reconsider Me!'

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